Most adults will experience low back pain at some point in their lives – more than 80 percent of people, according to the National Institutes of Health. It is the most common cause of job-related disability and a leading contributor to missed work days in the U.S.
For the vast majority of people with low back pain, it is neither permanent nor serious, according to Ritu Zacharias, M.D., a spine and physical medicine specialist in the Department of Neurosurgery at Henry Ford Hospital.
Most low back pain resolves with relative rest and anti-inflammatory pain medications such as ibuprofen (Advil), naproxen (Aleve) or acetominophen (Tylenol). Other non-addicting medications include muscle relaxant and nerve pain medications, which can be prescribed by a doctor and used temporarily until you are able to exercise or have physical therapy.
“Avoid narcotics to treat routine low back pain,” advises Dr. Zacharias. “These medications can cause constipation and create dependence, among other untoward side effects. The only time you should turn to this is for severe acute pain and under the guidance of a physician in an appropriate setting.”
Here are six tips Dr. Zacharias recommends if you have low back pain or want to prevent it:
- When in pain, stretch: Stretching, strengthening and aerobic conditioning of your core muscles is critical to both prevent and treat low back pain.
- Apply heat or cold: When deciding to apply heat or cold to your back, there is no official medical answer for which one is best. Cold decreases pain and spasms by blocking sodium channels in peripheral nerves. Heat helps relax the muscles and improves blood flow. Therefore, you should do what feels best.
- Explore alternative therapies: Physical therapy, chiropractic treatment, acupuncture or massage all could be viable options for managing back pain. The key is to find someone who is licensed and well-trained. Better yet, ask for a referral from someone you trust. Traction works for some patients with a herniated disc. Core exercises are the standard regardless of the condition causing low back pain. Massage feels good and releases endorphins, a natural pain reliever.
- Quit smoking: Smoking is bad for your health for so many reasons. When it comes to back pain, smoking decreases blood flow to muscles, joints and discs, which ultimately prevents healing.
- Rest but not completely: If you injure your back, do not take bedrest. Instead, take it easy. Sit or sleep in a comfortable position that reduces spinal pressure. For a herniated disc or muscle strain, the best way to sleep is lying on your back with several pillows below your legs so that your hips and knees are flexed from 80 to 90 degrees. If you have a joint condition, lying on your side with a body pillow between your knees is best.
- Practice yoga: Yoga is a fabulous means for prevention of low back pain. The overall benefit is to reduce stress while improving strength and flexibility. Even for those who perceive themselves as “inflexible,” like seniors, chair yoga is a great option.
There are several reasons you should seek immediate treatment by a physician for low back pain. These signs and symptoms include pain radiating down your legs, numbness or weakness in the groin or legs, or any loss of bowel or bladder control. Fevers, night pain or night sweats or weight loss concurrent with back pain are also warning signs to seek medical attention.
Dr. Ritu Zacharias is a physical medicine and spine specialist, who serves as Clinical Instructor with the Pain Medicine Fellowship at Henry Ford Hospital and as Co-Director of Senior Spine Services at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital.