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
The mind-body practice of yoga can be a great therapeutic activity to help strengthen back muscles and alleviate low back pain. However, older adults can encounter injuries from yoga, including to their backs, by doing the poses incorrectly. By taking preventive measures, relying on yoga instructors for guidance, and using support tools, people can safely practice yoga as a way to treat and manage back pain.
Using electronic devices, such as smartphones and computers, can lead to joint pain. Frequent texting can cause strain or overuse injuries of the tendons that run from the wrist to the thumb (a condition called De Quervain’s tenosynovitis). Pushing buttons too hard can lead to inflammation around the tendons and pulleys that bend the fingers, increasing the risk for trigger finger (stenosing tenosynovitis). Typing can worsen carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms. Looking down at devices for long periods can lead to neck pain. Pain relief may come with rest and changing the way one uses electronic devices.
An estimated 80% of people will seek medical attention for back pain at some point in their lives. Most of the time over-the-counter pain relievers does the trick. But they may not be effective enough. Some people require stronger prescription drugs while they seek treatments to address the source of their back pain.
Research supports the use of chiropractic spinal manipulation to help ease low back pain. The treatment may also help men avoid potentially harmful anti-inflammatory medication and opioid painkillers.
Piriformis syndrome is a painful condition that develops due to irritation or compression of the sciatic nerve near the piriformis muscle. The piriformis muscle connects the lowermost vertebrae with the upper part of the leg after traveling the "sciatic notch," the opening in the pelvic bone that allows the sciatic nerve to travel into the leg. Here, the muscle and nerve are adjacent and this proximity is why trouble can develop.
The condition is relatively common. Estimates suggest that about 5% of cases of sciatica (irritation of the sciatic nerve causing radiating pain from the back or buttock into the leg, calf and foot) are due to piriformis syndrome. It seems to be more common among women though the reason for this is not known.
The typical patient with piriformis syndrome complains of "sciatica" — that is, sharp, severe, radiating pain from the lower back or buttock down the back of the leg and into the thigh, calf, and foot. Symptoms may seem to be due to hip bursitis or disc herniation ("slipped disc") but the doctor's examination helps sort out the true cause because with piriformis syndrome the person also has:
Low back pain that doesn’t subside may need a doctor’s care. A good place to start is with a primary care doctor or a chiropractor, who can assess pain, and in most cases, can treat it. Low back pain sometimes needs the care of a specialist. The type of specialist to consult depends on the cause of the back pain. For example, referral to a rheumatologist is most appropriate when there is inflammation of the joints in the back, or if the back pain might be related to an inflammatory disease.
A 12-week yoga program that focused on strengthening the core and improving mobility helped reduce pain and improve quality of life among people who suffered from chronic low back pain.
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.
Getting the right equipment also helps ensure safe exercise. If using hand weights, start with a level that matches your current ability. And choose clothes and shoes designed for your type of exercise. For example, wear reflective clothing if you're going to walk, run, or cycle outside, so you'll be visible to drivers.
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.