Expert tips to treat and avoid back pain

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Do you suffer from back pain? Back pain is a common problem among many adults. The condition varies from person to person and the severity of it can usually be determined by the prevalent symptoms. 

Rachael McGuirk, MD, in the Department of Family Medicine at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, shared some information on how to distinguish between common and more serious back pain in addition to treatments and ways to avoid back pain.  

What causes back pain?
The most common causes of back pain include:

  • Muscular strain and/or sprain
  • Spine arthritis or degenerative changes
  • Herniated disc
  • Age – weight gain and a sedentary lifestyle can cause muscles and joints to lose tone as we age
  • Pregnancy – additional weight gain in the front of your body can shift the center of gravity and pull on your back
  • Fractures
  • Sports injuries
  • Accident or traumatic injury

What are the signs and symptoms of back pain?
There are many symptoms, including:

  • a dull aching sensation in the lower back
  • a stabbing or shooting pain that can radiate down the leg to the foot
  • an inability to stand up straight without pain
  • a decreased range of motion and diminished ability to flex the back

How do you treat muscular back pain?
“In primary care, we typically treat [back pain] with anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen or Naproxen,” says McGuirk. “This is assuming a patient can tolerate them and doesn’t have any condition that would disallow their use. We also would recommend continued daily activities and gentle stretching as tolerated.”

Is ice or heat best for back pain or soreness?
Generally, cold therapy is the most effective during the first 24 to 72 hours following your lower back injury. Applying ice can minimize inflammation and swelling and reduce pain. 

Heat therapy can be used to encourage healing after the initial inflammation and swelling has gone down. The application of heat helps to stimulate blood flow to the injured area, bringing restorative oxygen and nutrients and decreasing stiffness. But McGuirk notes that often times, she advises patients to use whichever method feels better. “If heat seems to help a patient better with pain or discomfort then that’s generally okay.”

What are the signs of serious back pain and when should you see a doctor?

Because back pain usually goes away with or without treatment, it’s not necessary in most cases to visit your doctor. But if your back pain worsens or the pain becomes more severe and doesn’t go away with medicine or rest, you should make an appointment with your doctor.  Doctors are more concerned with back pain in those who have a history of cancer or have had recent spine surgery. 

See a doctor if you experience any of these symptoms:

  • Numbness or tingling
  • Pain after a fall or injury
  • Trouble urinating or with bowel movements
  • Weakness, pain or numbness in your legs
  • Fever
  • Unintentional weight loss 

How can back pain be avoided?
Muscular back pain can be avoided by using appropriate techniques when lifting, says McGuirk.  “Having good core strength is also important. Yoga and physical therapy exercises are good ways to help strengthen your core and body overall.”

Other ways to avoid back pain include:

  • Not smoking as it can restrict the flow of blood to spinal discs
  • Try out new sleeping positions
  • Pay attention to your posture
  • Choose the right handbag or briefcase to help lessen your chances of back pain.