Almost everyone has felt some dull, achy or sharp, stabbing back pain. But when the discomfort is intense -- and especially if it's chronic -- back pain can make concentrating on your work and any daily activities difficult.
If you've found yourself saying, "Oh, my aching back!" lately, you are definitely not alone. National Institutes of Health (NIH) statistics show low back pain is the top cause of pain reported by Americans and according to the American Academy of Pain Medicine, more than 26 million people in the U.S. between the ages of 20 and 64 experience back pain frequently.
"Back pain is an extremely common issue. In fact, studies suggest 85 to 90% of people will have some problematic back pain in their lifetime," says W. Jeremy Beckworth, MD, assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Emory University School of Medicine and a physiatrist at the Emory Spine Center in Atlanta.
However, if you are a back pain sufferer, don't let those stats get you down. Instead, concentrate on this good news: the odds are greatly in your favor that your back pain will resolve sooner than later, without surgery or other major medical interventions -- especially if you follow certain self-care guidelines.
What to do when back pain strikes
When your back hurts, your first inclination may be to stay in bed and take some sick days. However, for most back pain, bed rest is more likely to prolong both your recovery time and your absence from work. That's the conclusion of numerous studies, including research involving over 500 people with common low back pain that was recently published in the journal Spine. "Most people will recover from back pain in six to twelve weeks, although it usually doesn't take that long. For upwards to 90% of people, their back pain will be a self-resolving issue," Dr. Beckworth tells us. "The bottom line is, if you can give it some time and treat your back pain conservatively, it will most likely get better on its own."
Dr. Beckworth offers these back pain self-care strategies:
- Stay active as much as you can tolerate.
- Try over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs when your back hurts. Dr. Beckworth says ibuprofen (found in pain relievers such as Advil) and naproxen (sold as Aleve) typically offer relief without having to turn to prescription drugs.
- Use ice and heat. Try ice to help calm pain in the first 24 to 48 hours when back pain initially strikes or when you experience a flare-up. "After that, heat or alternating heat with ice may help," Dr. Beckworth advises. "See what feels best for you."
- Consider topical analgesics. A variety of creams and gels in over-the-counter products, including Icy Hot and Ben Gay, contain topical pain relievers such as menthol that may relieve pain in some people. Your doctor can prescribe stronger pain-relieving patches and other anti-inflammatory topical agents that are applied to the back. However, Dr. Beckworth notes, these are often expensive and may not be covered by insurance; there are currently no generics available.
When to call your doctor
Since common back pain is almost always the result of strained muscles that will get better over time, Dr. Beckworth explains, back pain experts recommend against getting early x-rays or early MRIs for the condition in the absence of any other serious symptoms. However, if you don't notice much improvement after six weeks, it's time to call your doctor. However there are specific red flags to watch for that mean it's time to see your physician ASAP.
"If your back pain is accompanied by fever and chills, that may indicate an infection," Dr. Beckworth tells us. "Unexplained weight loss may be suggestive of cancer. If a person has neurological issues such as progressive weakness and is having problems controlling bowel and bladder function, it's rare, but there could be severe compression of some of the nerves that travel down the spine. These are all definite reasons to see a physician."
A more common red flag is pain that shoots down your leg. This condition, commonly known as sciatica, involves a pinched nerve in the back that causes pain down the leg. When this occurs, it doesn't necessarily mean you have a serious condition like a herniated disc or that surgery is in your future.
Although you should talk to your doctor, don't panic! "Even if pain is going down the leg, the outcomes are still generally favorable. If you can give it some time, chances are good you'll get better," Dr. Beckworth notes.
Avoiding back pain
Is there a particular activity that's most likely to cause common back pain? According to Dr. Beckworth, there's not. "There are times when someone was been bending over, twisting their body or lifting something and they suddenly felt some back pain. But it's hard for the majority of people to pinpoint one thing that set off their back pain," he answers.
That doesn't mean there's nothing you can do to protect your back. For example, having a chair in your office that allows you to sit comfortably and work with good posture, without having to hunch over towards your computer, is important. Common sense is also crucial -- doing heavy yard work or suddenly working out with heavy weights if you are out of shape can put your back at risk. "Regular exercise, keeping weight at a healthy level and not smoking will also reduce your risk of back pain," Dr. Beckworth says.