Nearly every sitcom since the beginning of television has had an episode about one of the main characters “throwing their back out.” They do this because producers are smart: they know that it will be funny, not just because of the skill of the writers or the actors, but because it is something so many people can identify with. If it has not happened to you, then, just wait.
We may not think about back pain too much when we are younger, but, as we age, or after our first experience with it, the slightest twinge can have us breaking out into a sweat, as we wait for that initial spasm that often announces the beginning of days, weeks or longer of pain and restricted movement. Back pain, especially lower back pain, is very common. It is second only to upper-respiratory infections for being the top reason for visits to the doctor, and it is estimated that 80 percent of all adults will experience low back pain at some point. It also has the dubious honor of ranking number one as the leading cause of job-related disability.
Why is the lower back so susceptible to injury? According to Ravneet “Sona” Bhullar, director of the Division of Chronic Pain Management at Albany Medical Center and assistant professor of anesthesiology at Albany Medical College, “The low back is particularly vulnerable as it is subject to significant stress, mechanical strain and helps to support the weight of the entire upper part of the body.”
Lower back pain, like other types of pain, falls into two basic categories:
- Acute – acute lower back pain is short term, normally lasting for a few days or up to several weeks and there is usually an identified precipitating event.
- Chronic – chronic lower back pain describes pain that persists for more than six weeks, may fluctuate in level of pain, flaring up and returning to a lesser amount, but not does go away. The cause for chronic lower back pain may not be known.
There is really nothing good about having back pain. There is, however, a light at the end of this uncomfortable and inconvenient tunnel. Treatment options have changed and for the better. While surgery is still done for the most severe cases that do not respond to other methods, it is at the far bottom of the list. Heavy-duty pain medication, specifically dangerous opiates, are no longer in favor for treating back pain, either. The harm caused by the rampant epidemic of these over-prescribed drugs, aside, research is showing that they are not even as effective as once believed in reducing pain.
Your doctor will usually begin by advising over the counter medications to help with the pain and relax the muscles, coupled with heat or ice. Bed rest and prolonged inactivity is not advised and can extend healing time. If the pain persists, the next step will likely come from an increasingly long list of options. Some of the most common, include:
- Physical therapy
- Exercise programs
- Mindfulness-based stress reduction
- Steroid injection therapy
In the event that you are not one of the 20 percent who never experience lower back pain, keep in mind that, while it may be painful, it will likely heal on its own. That said, if there was a significant blow that might possibly have created a fracture, if the pain persists more than a few days or you experience numbness or incontinence, make sure you consult with your healthcare professional right away.