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Back Pain Archive

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Will my herniated disc heal on its own?

Updated September 1, 2020

Ask the doctors

Q. I have a herniated disc in my back. What does this mean, and will this heal on its own?

A. A herniated disc, also called a slipped or ruptured disc, is a common problem that can happen at any age, but becomes more common in middle age and beyond. It occurs when the jelly-like filling in a spinal disc — one of the pads between your vertebrae, or spinal bones — breaks through the disc's outer shell, called the annulus, and bulges through the tear. When this happens, the material may press on nearby nerves, which can cause a host of symptoms including inflammation, pain, and numbness. Where in your body you experience these symptoms depends on the location of the herniated disc. For example, if the disc is in your neck, you may feel pain down your shoulder and into your arm. If the disc is lower in your back, it may irritate your sciatic nerve, which can cause pain that radiates through your buttock and down your leg. The good news is that in most cases — 90% of the time — pain caused by a herniated disc will go away on its own within six months. Initially, your doctor will likely recommend that you take an over-the-counter pain reliever and limit activities that cause pain or discomfort. But in some cases, if you've been using these strategies and haven't noticed an improvement, your doctor may recommend further evaluation and possibly an additional treatment strategy, such as physical therapy. Surgery is typically not recommended unless the problem does not respond to therapy, if you are having an increasingly hard time moving, or if your doctor believes the spinal cord is being compressed.

5 ways to ease pain using the mind-body connection

Published August 24, 2020

Mind-body therapies can help you reframe awareness of pain, whether recent or chronic, and rethink your response to it. There are several different techniques, some of which involve guidance or working with a therapist; others require nothing but focus and a small amount of time.

Three moves for better spine health

Updated August 1, 2020

Spinal instability can contribute to low back pain, but the "big three" exercises can help.

A strong core can stabilize your spine to help keep your lower back healthy and pain-free. The muscles and ligaments surrounding your spine can weaken with age or from an injury, which can make movements like twisting, stretching, lifting, and bending difficult.

"The lower back often has to compensate for this lack of mobility, which places greater stress and burden on its muscles," says Eric L'Italien, a physical therapist with Harvard-affiliated Spaulding Rehabilitation Center.

A plan for easy stretching

Updated July 1, 2020

Stretching becomes crucial as you age. Here is a quick routine that addresses the major tight spots.

Stretching is much like flossing. You know it's good for your health, but for whatever reason, you may not always make time for it.

"Most people know they need to stretch more, but find it burdensome or are not sure what to do," says Urvashi Chogle, a physical therapist at Harvard-affiliated Spaulding Rehabilitation Network.

Shore up your core

Updated May 1, 2020

Building the strength of the central muscles in your torso can help improve your balance and mobility.

You probably don't give a lot of thought to your core muscles, but they play a starring role in your daily life.

"The core is critical for stability and functional motion day to day," says Dr. Beth Frates, clinical assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School. "For example, standing, bending, twisting, and sitting all require the core muscles. With a strong core, people can reach for glasses on high shelves and stay balanced while walking with heavy grocery bags."

Sciatica

Updated April 6, 2020

What Is It?

Sciatica describes persistent pain felt along the sciatic nerve. This nerve runs from the lower back, down through the buttock and into the lower leg. It is the longest nerve in the body. Pain results when this nerve is compressed or injured. It most commonly results from inflammation, bony enlargement due to arthritis or a displaced (herniated) disk in the lower spine.

Symptoms

Sciatica causes pain that begins in the lower back and spreads through the buttock, leg, calf and, occasionally, the foot. The pain generally will feel dull, aching or burning. Sometimes, it starts gradually, worsens during the night, and is aggravated by motion. Sciatica also can cause tingling, numbness or muscle weakness in the affected leg.

Pain and neuromodulation: What’s all the “buzz” about?

Published March 3, 2020

Neuromodulation therapies use a targeted stimulus to help people manage pain. This can be in the form of an electrical stimulation device or a pump containing medication, either of which can be implanted in the body.

Don’t take back pain sitting down

Updated March 1, 2020

Some conditions can be aggravated by sitting, so after the initial pain subsides, aim to move more, not less.

Sitting down is supposed to be a way to relax after a long day on your feet. But for many women, sitting for any length of time is painful. It aggravates pain in the back instead of relieving it.

If this sounds like you, the problem could be one of several common conditions, says Dr. Steven J. Atlas, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Back X-Rays (Spine X-Rays)

Updated December 6, 2019

What is the test?

Doctors have used x-rays for over a century to see inside the body in order to diagnose a variety of problems, including cancer, fractures, and pneumonia. During this test, you usually stand in front of a photographic plate while a machine sends x-rays, a type of radiation, through your body. Originally, a photograph of internal structures was produced on film; nowadays, the image created by the x-rays goes directly into a computer. Dense structures, such as bone, appear white on the x-ray films because they absorb many of the x-ray beams and block them from reaching the plate. Hollow body parts, such as lungs, appear dark because x-rays pass through them.

Doctors use back x-rays to examine the vertebrae in the spine for fractures, arthritis, or spine deformities such as scoliosis, as well as for signs of infection or cancer. X-rays can be taken separately for the three areas of the spine: the cervical spine (neck), thoracic spine (middle back), and lumbar spine (lower back). Occasionally, doctors x-ray the pelvis to help diagnose the cause of back pain.

Myelography (Myelogram)

Updated December 6, 2019

What is the test?

A myelogram is an x-ray test in which dye is injected directly into your spinal canal to help show places where the vertebrae in your back may be pinching the spinal cord. It is sometimes used to help diagnose back or leg pain problems, especially if surgery is being planned.

How do I prepare for the test?

Tell your doctor ahead of time if you have ever had an allergic reaction to lidocaine or the numbing medicine used at the dentist's office, or to x-ray dyes. You should also tell your doctor if you might be pregnant, since x-rays can harm the developing baby.

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