- Written by Sandra Gordon Sandra Gordon
Count yourself lucky if you’ve never groaned about your back. Fact is, the majority of us — 80% — will deal with back pain at some point. It’s one of the most common reasons for a doctor visit.
Deciding how to treat it, though, can be tricky. There’s simply no gold standard.
“We have a long history of medical interventions that didn’t work,” says spine surgeon Roger Chou, M.D.
But today we know more than ever. Check out the latest ways to avoid and deal with pain and implement easy prevention moves.
1. Don’t coddle yourself. Whether your back pain is excruciating or merely annoying, you probably won’t feel like doing much. But don’t take it easy for more than a day or two. Doing so can prolong and worsen pain.
Instead, take a prescription or over-the-counter pain reliever (acetaminophen or ibuprofen) and start moving, says Daniel J. Mazanec, M.D., associate director of the Center for Spine Health at the Cleveland Clinic.
“Low-impact activities, like walking or swimming, boost blood flow to your back muscles and help loosen them up.”
2. Avoid the urge to be a weekend warrior. “In general, people who exercise regularly have less back pain than those who don’t,” says Mazanec.
But bingeing on exercise over the weekend — to make up for everything you missed during the week — can backfire because your muscles aren’t primed for the activity.
Instead, go on a power walk daily. It’s the best prescription for a strong, problem-resistant spine.
3. Stay slim. “Being overweight causes wear and tear on your ankles, knees, and hips that gets transferred to your spine because you limp or favor one side,” says pain specialist Perry G. Fine, M.D.
It can also put excess stress on disks, ligaments, and back joints, causing osteoarthritis of the spine.
4. Work your core. Weak stomach muscles are often linked to back issues.
The best exercise to practice regularly is the plank. Lie face down on the ground and push yourself up on your forearms and toes to form a straight line with your back. Hold for 30-60 seconds.
Sitting on a stability ball for 30 seconds or more each morning helps align ligaments around your disks, says Fine.
5. Quit it. In case you need yet another reason to stop smoking, consider this: Nicotine constricts blood flow to spinal disks, causing them to age faster than normal.
Visit www.cancer.org/smokeout or call the national tobacco quit line at (800) 784-8669.
6. Reconfigure your computer setup. Looking down at a screen, what people often do when working on laptops, puts strain on neck and back muscles, says Carneiro.
Your monitor should be at eye level, elbows and shoulders at 90 degrees. If you use a laptop, consider getting a separate keyboard to make these ergonomic adjustments.
7. Find pressure points. Studies indicate that acupuncture (the Chinese medicine technique of inserting thin needles into the skin) can help reduce back pain. If you shy away from needles, try shiatsu, which uses massage at acupuncture points.
“I typically recommend massage or acupuncture to patients with muscles that won’t relax, even with physical therapy,” says Heidi Prather, D.O.
Find an acupuncturist or shiatsu therapist from the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine at www.nccaom.org.
8. Stress less. The neurochemicals that flood your system when you’re dealing with tough times can lead to emotional and physical pain.
Reduce anxiety with regular exercise, a healthy diet, psychotherapy, and, if necessary, antianxiety/antidepressant prescription medication.
9. Consider steroids. When other attempts at relieving pain fail, especially if you have a herniated disc and sciatica (leg pain), steroid injections may provide relief.
“A shot of dexamethasone or methylprednisolone in the back can decrease inflammation and keep you moving,” says Wellington Hsu, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
These medications can ease discomfort for months.
10. Give your spine support. Your lower back naturally curves inward, but most chairs cause it to round out, which can throw off alignment.
“Cushioning your lumbar is the key to maintaining your spine’s neutral curvature,” says physical therapist Mary Ann Wilmarth.
Scoot all the way back in your chair with a roll of paper towels or a lumbar pillow wedged behind your waist. In a car or a public place, stuff your coat behind you.
“Once your low back is supported, your neck and upper back will stay in proper position,” Wilmarth says.