Stop the Aching: Treatment and Prevention of Lower Back Pain

Do you suffer from back pain?  Well, you’re not alone. About 90 percent of the population will experience lower back pain at some point. Symptoms can vary by cause, severity and duration, which can make treating back pain difficult. Symptoms of lower back pain can come on quickly, often unexpected. Back pain can interfere with sleep, work or even completing simple tasks like putting on your socks and shoes.

Fortunately, in many cases back pain is due to a non-worrisome cause, even though the pain can feel intense and severe at times. Patients are often surprised to learn their pain could be due to a simple muscle strain or spasm, connective tissue inflammation, arthritis, or normal wear and tear of the structures in the spine.

Even more surprising, it’s often difficult for doctors to identify the exact cause of pain. An X-ray and even an MRI can appear relatively normal despite severe pain, further clouding doctors’ understanding of back pain.

If you experience back pain, don’t panic. Most episodes of low back pain will resolve within a few days, and 50 percent of people fully recover within two weeks. Here are some helpful tips to manage your symptoms:

  • Keep moving. Staying in bed for more than 24 hours only prolongs your back pain.  Walking and other low-impact movements can help your pain. While it may seem counter-intuitive, the more you move the better your back will feel. Just remember to not carry heavy objects, and lift everything with your legs, not your back.
  • Use ice and heat over the site of your pain. Try alternating ice packs or heating pads—20 minutes at a time—to help reduce spasms and inflammation.
  • Over-the-counter medications, such as ibuprofen and naproxen, are more effective than acetaminophen. These non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) help reduce inflammation and relieve pain.  Check with your doctor to make sure these medications are safe for you to take.

If you’re not yet experiencing back pain now, there are a few things you can do to help prevent it in the future:

  • Maintain a regular exercise schedule. Patients with a sedentary life style are at higher risk for back pain. Strengthening your core muscle groups—your back, stomach, glutes and thigh muscles—will help support the mechanical structures in your lower back and reduce your chances of having pain.
  • Maintain a healthy body weight. Excess weight puts additional stress on your back.
  • Avoid smoking and nicotine products. The chemicals from smoking and nicotine products constrict the tiny blood vessels that bring nutrients to the mechanical structures in your lower back.  This can wear on the discs in your lower back and prevent healing after an injury.
  • Avoid prolonged sitting at work. If you have a desk job, stand up and move around every 30 to 60 minutes.

By Chad Patton, MD, medical director of Anne Arundel Medical Center’s Center for Spine Surgery and spine surgeon at AAMC Orthopedics. To reach his office, call 410-268-8862.

Originally published May 2016. Last updated August 2018.

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