What you need to know about low back pain

Posted on: October 25th, 2013 by Dr. Ryan C. Enke

Workmen shoveling snow, via the Boston Public Library.

The problem

Low back pain is very common and affects 85% of adults by age 50. If you have not had low back pain at some point in life, you are in the minority.

This complaint is the second most common reason for a doctor visit in the United States. The good news is that most episodes of low back pain will improve without invasive treatment within weeks to months. Unfortunately, in some cases low back pain can be severe, functionally limiting, and slow to resolve.

Can I prevent low back pain?

[quote]The best thing you can do to prevent low back pain is to stay fit.[/quote]

Regular aerobic exercise and maintaining a healthy weight are crucial not only for your general health, but to maintain a healthy back. Flexibility training and strengthening core muscles with activities such as Pilates and Yoga can be beneficial as well. Lastly, if performing heavy or repetitive lifting, be sure to use proper form, keep back straight and lift with legs.

What puts me at risk for low back pain?

Low fitness level, tobacco use, obesity, whole body vibration, and repetitive twisting or lifting can increase your risk of developing low back pain. Interestingly, poor job satisfaction is another risk factor. In some cases there are genetic factors as well and so you can blame your parents for that.

When back pain strikes

In spite of our best efforts, sometimes back pain just happens. The question becomes do I rest or stay active? For your everyday low back pain in the absence of major traumatic injury, the goal is to stay active. Bed rest can actually make things worse.  You can lose strength and flexibility with excessive rest. Try gentle range of motion, walking, and stretching. Exercise can actually speed up your recovery. Using ice or heating pad (after 72 hours for heat) can help relax sore muscles. Using over the counter medications can be helpful as well for symptomatic pain relief.

When should I see a doctor?

As discussed above, most cases of low back pain will resolve without formal medical treatment. However, if pain is severe, persistent, or associated with weakness, numbness, loss of bowel or bladder control, fevers, or weight loss, it is time to see a doctor. Also if you have a history of cancer or traumatic injury causing the pain this should be formally evaluated by a physician. When in doubt, It is better to be evaluated medically, to put your mind at ease.

7 tips to avoid low back pain

  1. Stay fit, keep moving with regular aerobic exercise
  2. Quit smoking, or better yet don’t start
  3. Maintain a healthy weight with diet and exercise
  4. Incorporate regular stretching into your weekly routine, especially hips and hamstrings
  5. Perform core strengthening exercises weekly
  6. Avoid lifting heavy objects with improper form, ask for help when needed
  7. Maintain good posture, avoid slouching, adjust work station to optimize

(image via)

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