Did you know that back pain is the leading cause of disability worldwide?
So many people miss work, have to cancel plans with friends or just suffer through day after day with back pain. It’s become a common part of our daily lives.
Every day, about 31 million people in the U.S. alone endure lower back pain, says the American Chiropractic Association. That means that one in every ten people living in America will suffer from back pain sometime today.
The road to recovery is not always clear.
The underlying causes of back pain are as varied as the people who have them. Sports injuries could be to blame, or simply poor posture. It could be something simple like a muscle strain from lifting a box the wrong way, or a side effect of arthritis.
There is no universal test for source of back pain, and there isn’t likely to be one any time soon. After all, your back is an incredibly complex system of parts!
To further muddle the issue, pain in any one of the discs, bones, muscles or other parts can easily radiate outward from the central point, making it difficult to discover the source of the pain.
According to Dr. Lawrence Kirschenbaum, chief of pain medicine at Bridgeport Hospital, back pain is particularly hard to diagnose. Every person is unique, and even similar patients with a seemingly identical set of symptoms can have wildly different problems.
One thing doctors can tell the vast majority of patients is what not to do. When you’re hurting, the last thing you want is to make it worse.
Ranging from usually ineffective to downright dangerous, these are the things you shouldn’t do when your back is hurting:
Extended Bed Rest
Dr. Stuart Belkin, an orthopedic surgeon with St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Bridgeport, says that it is best to avoid more rest than you absolutely need. “It can actually help you to be up and moving around,” he says. Spending a long time resting an injured back can slow your recovery time.
Worse than an extended recovery time, you can actually worsen your pain. According to doctors, spending more than a few days in bed can make your back more likely to become sore.
Long periods of rest can cause a multitude of problems; Depression from long periods of inactivity or blood clots from the constant pressure of your body weight can cause more pain than before. While short-term bed rest can help with pain, the benefits of rest can usually be felt within a couple of days. Beyond that time, you run the risk of further damaging your back.
For the best chance at recovering rapidly, doctors advise returning to your regular schedule as soon as your pain allows.
Ignoring your pain
While resuming activities is best, it’s not good to ignore your pain either. Dr. Wolf Mehling says that while bed rest isn’t healthy, treating back pain like it will go away can cause your back to get worse over time. “Once it is there for a while, more than six weeks… Ignoring your pain becomes a risk factor.”
He says distracting oneself from the pain can help at first, “not paying attention, ignoring pain or powering through it often helps patients have less pain and maintain function when the pain is new.” Acute pain or pain that lasts for a very long time is another matter entirely, however.
Is a specialist visit needed?
Mehling also says that, while it won’t hurt you, visiting a specialist can be an unneeded and expensive first step. While X-rays and MRIs are good ways to diagnose other sorts of pain, you don’t necessarily need to use those scans immediately.
If you have severe symptoms in addition to your back pain, such as fever, difficulty urinating or passing stool, or past history of cancer, the NIH states that a scan could be a good idea. In those cases, scans can help determine if your aching back is caused by a serious or deadly condition. If no other symptoms are present however, many times the scans are not useful for providing treatment.
Many doctors, such as Dr. Marc Brodsky of Stamford Hospital’s Center for Integrative Medicine and Wellness, prefer to diagnose back pain with a hands-on examination. Dr. Brodsky says that can be the best way to get to the root of the problem. He says that “X-rays or other radiographic technologies can be helpful in ruling out other illnesses, such as cancer, but it’s not a good way to identify the origins of pain.”
Once they’ve discovered the cause of pain, many times a primary care physician can also start a course of treatment. General practitioners are equipped to handle most of the back ailments that patients have.
While some people who suffer from back pain believe that surgery is a necessary part of treatment, this is also untrue. A general practitioner can prescribe many methods to help treat pain, including massage therapy, and knows when to send a patient on for more specialized care if the occasion requires it.