A Pain In The… Back

It is one of the most common medical complaints in the USA.  It generates as many doctor visits as the common cold.  It effects all aspects of life from work to working-out.  It is back pain.  And almost everyone experiences it at some point in their lives.  The causes can vary, the symptoms can be different each time you experience it, but the treatment can initially be simple and easy.

Back pain can be mechanical: you did something to your back and now it hurts.  Lifting something too heavy, lifting in the wrong way (back bent and straight-legged), an awkward position for too long: all can stress or strain the back muscles.  Often this pain is not immediate, but makes getting out of bed the next day a painful experience.  Back spasms, or waves of severe muscle pain, can make it difficult to move around.  Your legs can sometimes feel as if they won’t hold you up.  Some people get such severe spasms they may feel nauseated.

Back pain can also be due to structural changes in the spinal cord: a herniated disc or spinal stenosis.  A disc herniation can result from result from lifting, but can also come from something as simple as a cough or sneeze.  Spinal stenosis can be more of a gradual onset of pain, but can also flare for no apparent reason.  Some of the time, these conditions can start off with back pain, but usually leg pain, numbness, tingling or weakness is the bigger complaint.

The good news is that initially, these conditions can be treated with the same types of modalities: anti-inflammatories, topicals and activity modification.  A visit to the doctor is not always necessary. If you can take medication like ibuprofen or naproxen, which are available over the counter, that’s a good place to start.  Ice your back for swelling and some numbing effect.  Try a medicated creme or gel; they can be effective.  Do not lay in bed for hours at a time.  Do not try to go through your normal work-out routine either.  Walking and gentle stretching is key.

Given a few days of the above mentioned treatments, you should start to feel better.  But residual pain may last several weeks.  If pain is not improving, if leg symptoms increase, if there is any change in the function of your bowels or bladder, then a doctor visit is needed.  Often, some stronger medications and physical therapy are all that may be necessary.  An MRI is not always needed before conservative measures are given a try.

For long-term back health, strength and flexibility are the mainstays of treatment.  Strength and movement not only in the back, but abdominal and leg muscles needs to become part of a regular exercise routine.  Listen to your body when it is tired or injured.  Try some nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) and ice.  When in question, call OIP!

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