Article written by Bob Cairo, clinical director and senior physical therapist at our Ocean View clinic and published in Costal Point on October 9, 2015.
Are you struggling with lower back pain? You’re not alone. According to the National Institute of Arthritis & Musculoskeletal & Skin Diseases (NIAMS), 65 million Americans, or 8 out of 10 people, have some type of back pain.
Back pain is a huge problem for half of all working Americans, and it’s one of the most common reasons people miss work. Back pain is second only to upper respiratory infections as the most common reason people see a doctor. And don’t buy into that old myth that back pain is just for older people. The fact is young people can suffer injuries or have a condition that results in back problems.
This is no small problem, and the numbers tell you the story. The nationwide annual tab for back pain is staggering. While studies report it’s hard to identify all the costs associated with back pain, they have identified at least $50 billion a year that Americans spend on back pain.
With experts estimating that up to 80 percent of us will have a problem with back pain at some point in our lives, it’s important for you to know the facts to help yourself and your loved ones.
Back pain is usually classified as acute, sub-acute or chronic. Acute back pain comes on suddenly and can last for many weeks. This is the most common type of back pain. Sub-acute back pain is pain that lasts for as long as three months, while chronic back pain can start suddenly, but last for longer than three months.
While back pain can occur in any part of the back, the most common back pain problems are in the lower back, which makes sense, because it’s the lower back that supports most of our body weight.
What causes back pain? That’s the question most people ask, and the list of causes is a long one. Strain and injury to the muscles, nerves and ligaments of the lower back can include everything from lifting something improperly to overuse from a repetitive activity, as you might do in sports or for a hobby. Tendinitis and bursitis are common overuse injuries.
But, there’s so much more. Injuries can include lumbar strains or sprains from stretching too far, which damages ligaments and can even result in a tear, herniated discs, inflammatory conditions such as arthritis, falls and accidents, lots of lifting, twisting and bending in a sudden or awkward way, sciatica, fractures, pregnancy and some infections and diseases.
A number of studies show that people between the ages of 30 and 60 usually experience back pain from the strain of a lower back muscle or from an issue with a disc. I could go on and on, but you get the picture.
The symptoms of back pain can be as numerous as the many causes. Depending on the cause, pain can be achy and dull, or severe and sharp. Muscle spasms, for example, can result in pain that is quite severe.
You may experience pain that affects your buttocks, groin, hips or upper thigh and travels down a leg and into a foot. You may also experience tingling and a burning sensation, numbness or weakness in your legs or feet. Some people have serious problems moving, and the pain is so severe that it is difficult to stand or walk, or even can prevent you from moving. Sleeping can be very difficult.
What everyone who has back pain or has experienced back pain can agree on is that it is miserable and can totally disrupt your ability to do the simplest tasks, and can severely impact your quality of life.
If you have been experiencing back pain, your first important step is to see a doctor to get a proper diagnosis and get on the path to recovery and getting your life back.
Before you go for your appointment, take the time to write down important information that can help your doctor help you. The information you bring with you should include when your back pain started; what did you do to trigger the pain if you know (such as carrying a heavy box); do you have other symptoms with it, such as pain or weakness in your legs; have you had problems with back pain before; how severe is the pain and is it impacting your ability to do your daily activities or work; and include whether you have other health problems or conditions and what medications you take, including vitamins and supplements.
All of this information will help your doctor get a complete picture. Expect that your doctor will perform a thorough examination and will likely conduct some tests to determine your diagnosis.
Treatments for low-back problems range from injections to surgery. You should have an active dialogue with your doctor to explore all your treatment options and get your medical professional’s advice in selecting the treatment approach that will work best with your particular diagnosis.
The vast majority of treatment plans include physical therapy. That’s because there is substantial evidence supporting the benefits of physical therapy as a critical component of back care and back pain relief.
In fact, regardless of the treatment path you will follow, even if surgery is involved, studies demonstrate that physical therapy will extensively reduce a patient’s recovery time. A significant part of the importance of physical therapy treatment surrounds strengthening and stabilization. The obvious reason is that patients with low-back pain are most likely to recover when they are in the best possible physical shape.
Physical therapy treatments focus on reducing pain, increasing your ability to function and return to your normal activities and daily routines. It also focuses on helping you learn what you need to do to maintain your back health and prevent another painful, movement-limiting episode.
Your physical therapist will work with your doctor to get a full picture of your medical profile and will devise a physical therapy program that is specific to your needs and condition.
Expect that the physical therapy program customized for you will include what’s known as passive physical therapy (heat or cold applications, for example) to reduce pain, and a program of exercises and hands-on physical therapy to help you achieve maximum recovery.
Many people seek ongoing monitoring for the maintenance program that follows their physical therapy treatment program, to avoid having problems in the future. Many also look for an exercise program to manage their back problems and improve their physical profile as a key part of prevention. Talk to your physical therapist and map out a plan that will work for you.
Prevention needs to be a big part of your strategy, for obvious reasons. Exercise, working on achieving proper posture, improving your flexibility and strengthening your back and abdomen, with their key muscles that are associated with back health, should be on your agenda.
Prevention should include avoiding lifting anything that is heavy, but if you have to lift something, you need to bend at your knees and remember to keep your feet apart, to give yourself a wider base for support. Use your leg muscles when you lift, and avoid twisting while you are lifting and carrying.
Don’t stand for long periods of time, even at work, and when sitting at a computer or at a desk, make sure you have a straight-backed chair that allows you to adjust the seat, back and armrests.
If you have to sit for long periods of time in a chair at home, put a stool under your feet that raises your knees to a level higher than your hips. For sitting and driving for extended periods, a good rule of thumb is to put a pillow or even a rolled up towel behind your lower back, to give you better support.
When it comes to driving, if you’re planning a long trip, make sure you plan extra time to stop and walk around every hour to give your back a break. Weight loss and quitting smoking will also improve your back health, as will a regular exercise routine to strengthen your core and keep you flexible.
The bottom line is you need to be smart about managing your back pain and preventing recurrences. Life is too short to spend it in pain and unable to enjoy even the simplest movements, such as getting out of bed or picking up a magazine or newspaper. You deserve more, so make the investment in a plan that will let you live well and be happy. You’re worth it!
Bob Cairo is a licensed physical therapist at Tidewater Physical Therapy. He can be reached by calling (302) 537-7260.