The very first question most people ask me when they come in for an appointment (or if they meet me at a social gathering and find out I’m a spine doc) is, “How can I get rid of my back pain?” Back pain is one of the most common and frequent issues bringing people in to see their doctors. The most typical source of back pain is lumbar strain–an acute inflammation of the muscles, ligaments or joints. The best treatment for lumbar strain is rest for 1-2 days (no lifting, minimal walking or activity), in addition to anti-inflammatory medication (i.e. ibuprofen such as Advil or Aleve, as long as you don’t have a medical condition that precludes safe use), plus heat and gentle stretching exercises. If you are unsure about which exercises to do, a physical therapist can be a good resource, or look online. One website I like that offers stretching exercises to help with back pain is www.spine-health.com.
If pain continues for more than 7-10 days or is associated with symptoms in your legs such as radiating pain, numbness, tingling or mild weakness, consult your doctor as this may be a more serious condition of disk herniation (bulging disc) or spinal stenosis (often called a “pinched nerve,” it’s a narrowing of one or more areas in your spine.)
If you develop sudden severe weakness in your legs, numbness in your buttock area or both legs and/or any loss of bowel or bladder control, seek emergency medical attention immediately as this can represent severe nerve damage and typically requires emergency surgery.
According to the National Institutes of Health, in a 3-month period, about 25% of U.S. adults experience at least one day of back pain. Of course anyone can experience back pain, but there are two factors that increase your risk substantially: age (back pain is more common as you get older), and fitness level (back pain is more common among people with weak back and abdominal muscles.) The key to prevention is daily, low-impact aerobic exercise. “Weekend warriors” are more likely to have back problems and suffer back injuries than people who make moderate physical activity a daily habit.
You can’t do anything about getting older, but you can be mindful of ways to keep your back healthy into your twilight years.