Back pain is one of the most common painful and non-life-threatening conditions. It affects four in five Americans at some point in their lives. The good news is that back pain need not govern how you live your life.
If you have back pain, medication, exercise, and changes in your lifestyle are likely to offer the most relief. Surgery is useful in a minority of people
Most back pain isn't dangerous, but it's important to learn the "red flag" situations that require immediate medical attention. These include:
- back pain that occurs at the same time as a fever
- leg weakness that comes on abruptly or gets progressively worse
- numbness in the groin
- loss of bowel or bladder control
- pain that worsens instead of getting better
- inability to find a comfortable position for sitting or sleeping during times when you feel back pain
Other self-care steps you can take to mend your back include different types of exercise and complementary therapies such as chiropractic care, acupuncture, and massage, as well as choosing the right mattress.
Back Pain Articles
By Heidi GodmanExecutive Editor, Harvard Health Letter
You might be focused on outcomes when you exercise: stronger muscles, weight loss, or other aspects of better health and wellness. But if you don't focus on the exercise, and what it takes to do it safely, you may set yourself up for workout injuries.
Safe exercise requires planning and careful execution. Start by finding the best exercise for your ability. For example, if you have joint pain, you can avoid workout injuries by choosing exercise that relieves joint pressure, such as swimming or cycling. If you have balance problems, a supervised exercise program with a personal trainer might be a safer bet. Discuss the options with your doctor, a personal trainer, or a friend; and get the okay from your doctor before starting a program, especially if you have heart or lung disease.
By Matthew SolanExecutive Editor, Harvard Men's Health Watch
As people enter middle age, they are more likely to experience bouts of low back pain. In fact, according to the Harvard Special Health Report Men's Health: Fifty and Forward, back pain affects about four in five Americans at some point in their lives and equally strikes men and women.
Age is often the culprit. Over time, the bones and joints in your lower back begin to change. Your discs (the structures that serve as cushions between the bones in the spine) tend to wear out and sometimes become fragmented. These structural alterations sometimes cause pain.
Opioid painkillers are commonly prescribed for chronic low back pain. However, a new study suggests that the drugs offer only modest, short-term relief, and should probably be used in conjunction with nondrug therapies or different drugs.
The ancient art of acupuncture has been practiced for centuries in Asia and has more recently spread to the United States and other Western countries. According to traditional Chinese beliefs, acupuncture works by affecting the flow of energy (called qi or chi), through 12 channels, or meridians, that run lengthwise through the body.
Acupuncture involves the insertion of extremely fine needles into the skin at specific "acupoints" along the meridians. This action, some scientific evidence has shown, may result in pain relief by releasing endorphins, the body's natural painkilling chemicals, and may affect the part of the brain that governs serotonin levels, the brain transmitter involved with mood.
It appears that mindfulness-based stress reduction and cognitive behavioral therapy are better than typical treatment for reducing back pain
Mindfulness stress reduction can provide long-term improvements in pain and function for people with low back pain.
Opioids are powerful painkillers that block messages of pain to the brain and decrease the body's perception of discomfort. But taking opioids for four weeks or longer puts a person at risk for dependence and sometimes for addiction.
Sciatica affects as many as 40% of people during their lives. While attacks can vary in terms of severity, duration, and frequency, you can take measures to manage the pain and prevent future episodes.
Adding muscle relaxers or narcotic pain relievers to the nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) naproxen (Aleve) did not improve pain or function for people who went to emergency rooms seeking help for severe low back pain.
Brisk walking works many muscles that support a strong and healthy back, such as the muscles in the thighs, calves, abdomen, hips, and buttocks.
Strengthening, stretching, and improving posture will go a long way toward reducing back pain that comes with age.