Our backs are remarkable. They support our bodies through everyday activities including sitting, standing, walking and lifting. We often take them for granted until we injure them. Problems with any of the back’s component parts — bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons, disks and nerves — can cause pain, but most often discomfort stems from muscles and ligaments strained by improper lifting or awkward movement. In some cases, there is a structural problem such as a bulging or ruptured disk, sciatica, arthritis, osteoporosis or skeletal irregularities. The exact cause is unknown in 85 percent of cases, despite advances in medical technology.
Symptoms include muscle ache, shooting pain, pain that travels down your leg, limited range of motion or flexibility or the inability to stand straight. Acute back pain lasts for a few days; pain that lasts more than three months is considered chronic. See your doctor if you do not feel improvement in 72 hours; if you experience back pain for the first time after age 50; or if you have a history of cancer, osteoporosis, steroid use or alcohol or drug use.
Risk factors include sedentary work, physically strenuous work, being female, being older, smoking and obesity. Smokers have decreased oxygen levels in their spinal tissue, reducing the back’s ability to heal. Extra weight puts strain on your back muscles. Anxiety, depression or a stressful job can also be contributing factors.
Seven out of 10 people will experience back pain at some point in their lives. It is the most common reason for physician office visits and absence from work in the United States. Interestingly, 70 percent of people with an episode of low back pain will be better in one month, no matter what they do, and close to 90 percent will improve within three months. Prolonged bed rest was once prescribed for back pain, with a very slow progression to activity. Experts now recommend minimal bed rest, one or two days. Muscles begin to weaken after several days of inactivity and may be more likely to contract and spasm.
Studies show that people who performed specific exercises for acute back pain did not experience greater improvement than those who did not exercise. However, getting out of bed and moving as much as pain allows does speed recovery. Listen to your body and move around as much as you can. Rest in a comfortable position when pain and stiffness intensify, but don’t let rest periods extend for hours.
Medical exams for back pain may include X-rays, a CT scan or MRI. For pain management, you may take acetaminophen, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug or a prescribed mild muscle relaxant. Medications for severe back pain include narcotics, given only for a short time under supervision; low-dose tricyclic antidepressants; and epidural injections into your spinal column. Alternative medicine methods for back pain include herbal treatments and hands-on therapy such as chiropractic care, acupuncture and massage. Some people find that mind-body techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy and progressive relaxation are helpful.
If your back pain returns, consider having a follow-up visit with your doctor, who may want to monitor your weight, prescribe exercise or refer you to specialists to rule out a life-threatening cause of back pain. Surgery is rarely recommended.
Walking, back strengthening and stretching exercises can prevent or reduce most back pain incidents. Good body mechanics also helps. The Gokhale Method, for example, teaches healthy posture and movement to help you sit, sleep, stand, walk and bend in ways that protect and strengthen your bones and muscles. Based on research of indigenous cultures, the method emphasizes everyday movement rather than periodic exercise sessions so that you naturally incorporate a newfound “body wisdom” into daily activities.
When traveling in a confined space, move around as much as possible. Roll a pillow, blanket or sweater into a lower back support and use an inflatable neck pillow. Adjust your seat and footrest to a comfortable position. Regularly assess your comfort and readjust your position frequently. Get up and walk around the plane to prevent back muscles from stiffening.
Try this stretching exercise in your hotel room (check with your physician first). Lie on your back on the floor or the bed with a towel or low pillow under your head and neck. Bend your knees, grasp your right leg below the knee and gently pull toward your chest; hold for 20 seconds and release. Repeat with the left leg. Repeat 10 times. For more information, visit http://www.nlm.nih.gov.
Use lightweight luggage with spinner wheels
Pack lightly in several smaller bags rather than one large bag
If heavy luggage is unavoidable, ship it ahead of time
Lift luggage slowly; break movement into smaller steps
Bend at the knees and use the legs to lift
Pivot with the feet, not the back, when lifting
Carry heavy luggage close to your body
Carry the same amount of weight on each side of your body
If handling one bag, switch sides often
The content of this article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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