Human Body

All About Back Pain

Reasons Behind

  • You’re stressed out. It might not be a surprise to learn that stress can cause tight muscles and knots in your neck and upper back, which can definitely hurt. But anxiety might also cause you to have back spasms, says Ada Stewart, MD, a family physician with the Eau Claire Cooperative Health Centers in Columbia, South Carolina, and a member of the board of directors of the American Academy of Family Physicians. More bad news: Once you have some back pain, ruminating about it could make the ache even worse. If you suspect that stress is literally hurting you, try to work some relaxation techniques into your routine. And at least one study has found that weekly yoga or intensive stretching helps reduce low back pain.
  • You’re addicted to technology. “Hunching over a phone or tablet for several hours a day can cause what we refer to as ‘text neck,'” says Scott Gallant, a physical therapist and spine specialty program manager for Athletico. “Having a slumped neck and rounded shoulders puts an additional 60 pounds of weight on your spine and can inadvertently change your posture and cause back pain.” If you simply can’t disconnect, try keeping your phone at eye level.
  • You’re not sitting properly. As with constantly clutching a smartphone, being tied to your desk will make your spine pretty unhappy. “Poor posture can cause low back pain by increasing the amount of pressure or tension put on bones, joints, ligaments, and intervertebral discs,” says Stacey Pierce-Talsma, DO, chair and associate professor of the Osteopathic Manipulative Medicine Department at Touro University in California. Quitting your desk job probably isn’t an option, but you can improve your form: Keep your forearms parallel to the floor, head in line with your torso, feet flat on the floor or on a footrest, back fully supported, and thighs parallel to the floor, according to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration.
  • You just had a baby. Of course you already know that, but you might not realize that your tiny bundle of joy is messing with your back. “Almost 80% of new moms suffer lower back pain as a result of the stress placed on the body during pregnancy coupled with habits resulting from caring for a young baby,” Gallant says. “For example, holding a baby on only one side of the body and hunching over while nursing leads to muscle imbalances, which affects the natural curve of the spine.” If you’re a new mother, try to be aware of maintaining good posture and alternating muscle groups so you’re not constantly rocking/swaying/bouncing on one side only.
  • You have a muscle imbalance elsewhere in your body. Everything is inter-connected, and your back pain just might be stemming from tight hamstrings or weak abdominals. (Want to strengthen your core muscles and flatten your belly? The simple plan in Fit in 10: Slim and Strong for Life can help you get there.) If other muscle groups are off, it can mess with your overall mechanics and “cause the muscles of the back to do more work than they should to keep the spine upright or moving correctly,” says Robert Herbst, a personal trainer, coach, and power-lifter in Larchmont, New York. You may need to work with a physical therapist to ID and correct the specific imbalances that are over-taxing your back.
  • You have a bulging or ruptured disk. The disks between your vertebrae help cushion the spine and act as shock-absorbers, but over time they can flatten or rupture due to natural aging, certain movements, or a family history of disk disease. This doesn’t always cause pain, but when it does, it can be hugely uncomfortable. When a bulging disk is the culprit, doctors often start with over-the-counter medication, hot and cold packs, and physical therapy.
  • Something much more serious is going on. Pancreatitis, ulcers, or even a kidney infection could cause pain that radiates into the back. Cancer can also cause back pain. “You can also end up having an infection, osteomyelitis, which is an infection of the spine,” Stewart says. Most types of back pain resolve on their own within six weeks, so if yours hasn’t—or it’s getting worse—it’s probably time to see a physician. (Here are 10 symptoms that warrant a trip to the ER.) Other red flags include fever, numbness in the rectal area, and loss of bowel or bladder control. You should also see a doc if your spine is particularly tender in certain spots, or if you’ve fallen or had some kind of trauma. “Or if you cannot move, then you really need to go see a doctor,” Stewart says.

Helpful Stretching Exercises

Stretching of the joints, muscles, and nerves are very important to ensure that there are no imbalances throughout the musculoskeletal system. Decreased flexibility in any of these areas may lead to lower back pain. Not all of these stretches may be appropriate for everyone. A stretch should not induce painful symptoms. Rather, a stretch should feel relieving to the lower back and may even help to reduce any symptoms.

Suggested Tips Relieving

  • Sleep Better for Back Pain Relief. When you have back pain, sleeping can be hard. It can be a vicious cycle because when you don’t get enough sleep, your back pain may feel worse. A poor sleep position can also aggravate back pain. Try lying on your side. Place a pillow between your knees to keep your spine in a neutral position and relieve strain on your back. If you need to sleep on your back, slide a pillow under your knees. Be sure to sleep on a comfortably firm mattress.
  • Back Pain and Your Posture. Grandma was right! Slouching is bad for you. And poor posture can make back pain worse, especially if you sit for long periods. Don’t slump over your keyboard. Sit upright, with your shoulders relaxed and your body supported against the back of your chair. Try putting a pillow or a rolled towel between your lower back and your seat. Keep your feet flat on the floor.
  • Back Pain Medication. There are two kinds of over-the-counter pain relievers that frequently help with back pain: nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and acetaminophen. Both have some side effects, and some people may not be able to take them. Talk to your doctor before taking pain relievers. And don’t expect medication alone to solve your pain problem. Studies show you’ll probably need more than one type of treatment.
  • Prescription Back Pain Relievers. Some people may need prescription-strength NSAIDs or opioid medications to help with pain. It is important to talk to your doctor or pharmacist if you are taking any other medications — including over-the-counter medicines — to avoid overdosing on certain active ingredients. Your doctor may also prescribe muscle relaxants to help ease painful muscle spasms.
  • Antidepressant Medications. Even if you’re not depressed, your doctor may prescribe antidepressant medications as part of the treatment for chronic low back pain. It’s not clear how antidepressants help relieve chronic pain. It is believed that antidepressants’ influence on chemical messengers may affect pain signals in the body.
  • See a Physical Therapist. Physical therapists can teach you how to sit, stand, and move in a way that keeps your spine in proper alignment and alleviates strain on your back. They also can teach you specialized exercises that strengthen the core muscles that support your back. A strong core is one of the best ways to prevent more back pain in the future. Studies show that when you increase your strength, flexibility, and endurance, back pain decreases — but it takes time.
  • Don’t Rest an Achy Back. Doctors used to prescribe bed rest for back pain. But now we know that lying still is one of the worst things you can do. It can make back pain worse and lead to other complications. Don’t rest for more than a day or two. It’s important to get up and slowly start moving again. Exercise has been found to be one of the most effective ways to relieve back pain quickly. Try swimming, walking, or yoga.
  • Ice and Heat to Ease Back Pain. Regular applications of ice to the painful areas on your back may help reduce pain and inflammation from an injury. Try this several times a day for up to 20 minutes each time. Wrap the ice pack in a thin towel to protect your skin. After a few days, switch to heat. Apply a heating pad or warm pack to help relax your muscles and increase blood flowing to the affected area. You also can try warm baths to help with relaxation. To avoid burns and tissue damage, never sleep on a heating pad.
  • Hands-On Therapy for Back Pain. Does massage really ease back pain once you leave the table? A recent study found that one weekly massage over a 10 week period improved pain and functioning for people with chronic back pain. Benefits lasted about six months but dwindled after a year. Another hands-on approach is spinal manipulation. Performed by a licensed specialist, this treatment can help relieve structural problems of the spine and restore lost mobility.
  • Nerve Stimulation for Back Pain. Research is being conducted on certain treatments that stimulate nerves to reduce chronic back pain. Your doctor may consider adding acupuncture to your treatment plan if you aren’t finding relief with more conservative care. Another method your doctor might suggest is transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), during which mild electric pulses are delivered to the nerves to block incoming pain signals.
  • Therapy for Back Pain. It may seem strange to see a psychologist for back pain. But studies show that cognitive behavioral therapy is very effective in the short and long term at helping chronic back pain. For example, CBT may target how people with back pain think about physical activity — and why they may be avoiding it — to help change the way they respond to being active. People who do CBT have reported significant decreases in pain and disability.
  • Back Pain and Biofeedback. Biofeedback uses a special machine that helps you train your brain to control your response to pain. You learn to moderate your breathing, heart rate, blood flow, and muscle tension. Some studies have found that it is better than medication in easing back pain, reducing pain intensity by about 30%. The best part: it has no side effects.
  • Spinal Injections for Back Pain. A doctor may recommend a spinal injection to help reduce your back pain. There are different types of injections that doctors specializing in pain relief may use. For example, an injection of a corticosteroid can help relieve inflammation that is causing the pain. Depending on the kind of injection, your doctor may limit your number of doses per year to avoid possible side effects.
  • Back Surgery. If a bulging disc is putting pressure on a nerve, your surgeon might recommend a discectomy to remove some disc material. Or a laminectomy might be recommended to decompress an area where there is pressure on the nerves or spinal cord. Spinal fusion may be done to help stabilize the spine. Like all surgeries, these carry risks and aren’t always successful. So they should be options of last resort.



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