Oh, My Aching Back!

Low back pain is a common ailment that affects nearly everyone at some point in life.

Low back pain is a common ailment that affects nearly everyone at some point in life. Low back pain can affect work, routine daily tasks, and recreational activities, and is the most common cause of job-related disability. Low back pain affects women and men equally and often occurs between the ages of 30 and 50 due in part to the aging process. As we age, bone strength and muscle elasticity decrease and the discs begin to lose fluid and flexibility. This may increase the risk of experiencing pain from disc disease or spinal degeneration.

Most back pain is mechanical in nature and happens because of trauma to the lower back. This trauma can be caused by heavy lifting, a sports injury, work around the house, or a car accident. Symptoms may include muscle ache, sharp or shooting pain, limited flexibility, or difficulty standing upright. Sometimes back pain may be caused by degenerative changes such as arthritis, disc disease, osteoporosis, or congenital abnormalities of the spine. Contributors to low back pain include: obesity, smoking, weight gain during pregnancy, stress, poor posture or physical condition, and poor sleeping position. Most acute low back pain will resolve itself over time, but sometimes - if left untreated - symptoms can become more serious.

If you have low back pain accompanied by fever, loss of bowel or bladder control, pain when coughing, and weakness in the legs, you may have a pinched nerve or other serious problem. People with diabetes may have back pain or pain radiating into the leg due to neuropathy. People with any of these symptoms should contact their physician immediately.

In most incidences, low back pain will resolve itself in a few days to a few weeks. Immediately after a trauma, cold compresses, used several times a day for 10 to 20 minutes, can help alleviate the pain and inflammation. After a few days of cold treatment, heat may be applied to relax muscles and increase circulation. The best thing to do is stay active as much as possible and avoid activities that may put extra strain on your back. Limit rest times as much as possible, because bed rest may limit your flexibility. Should your symptoms persist beyond 72 hours, you may want to consult your physician for further testing and/or treatment options.

Recurring back pain due to improper body mechanics or other nontraumatic causes can often be prevented. Maintaining correct postural alignment, using proper body mechanics when lifting objects, and engaging in low-impact exercise can reduce your risk of developing back pain.

Here are some keys to help prevent low back pain: always stretch before exercise or strenuous activity; maintain good upright posture; wear comfortable, low-heeled shoes; don’t lift objects that are too heavy for you; maintain a proper diet to reduce excess weight; and don’t smoke.

Back-healthy activities include: stretching exercises, swimming, yoga, biking, walking, and exercises to improve posture and muscle balance. If you have pain that is more than mild and lasts more than 15 minutes during exercise, stop and consult a physician.

Remember that low back pain is common and often preventable. If you stay fit and maintain a good postural alignment, your chances of developing pain will be decreased.

Karen Groulx, PT, DPT
Groulx earned a doctorate of physical therapy degree from Temple University in Philadelphia. She has been working in the outpatient orthopedic clinical setting for the past six years. You may reach her at kjg1231@hotmail.com.

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