Even with the musical motivation of, “You can do it, put your back into it, ” – No! Sometimes you just can’t because your back really hurts. And you’re NOT alone.
Nearly 80% of adults experience low back pain at some point in their lifetime and more than a quarter of them report experiencing back pain within the past 3 months.
Back pain is one of the most common reasons why people go to the doctor or miss work, and is a leading cause of disability worldwide.
What causes it?
Back pain can have many causes. There doesn't have to be necessary be an underlying disease. It can be caused by:
muscle or ligament strain from working out
lifting too much
sleeping in an uncomfortable position
being overweight or even wearing a poorly fitting backpack
It can also stem from structural changes in the back, especially as we age or as our bodies are exposed to wear and tear. A few structural changes in the back include:
Bulging or ruptured disks: Disks act as cushions between the bones (vertebrae) in your spine. The soft material inside of a disk can bulge or rupture and press on a nerve.
Arthritis: Osteoarthritis can affect the lower back. In some cases, arthritis in the spine can lead to a narrowing of the space around the spinal cord, a condition called spinal stenosis.
Skeletal irregularities: A condition in which your spine curves to the side (scoliosis) also can lead to back pain, but generally not until middle age.
Osteoporosis: Your spine's vertebrae can develop compression fractures if your bones become porous and brittle.
And sometimes, back pain can stem from inflammation, infection or abnormal tissue growth within the abdomen. This can explain why people experience back pain with menstrual cramps, an enlarged prostate, urinary bladder infections or even kidney stones.
Do I need an X-ray, CAT scan or MRI?
The truth is back pain often develops without a cause that your doctor can identify with a test or an imaging study. This is why image studies aren’t automatically requested. It’s simply unnecessary to expose you to large doses of radiation, additional costs and inconvenience your time unless it’s results will be helpful in guiding your treatment.
Most often, its not needed – at least not initially unless there is the suspicion for broken bones, trauma, tumors or nerve damage. For example, if you fell 15 feet off of a ladder and now have back pain – then yes, imaging would be warranted. But if you were having back pain the day after an extreme workout and nothing looks broken and there aren’t any signs of nerve damage– it’s likely just a muscular issue that will resolve with rest, ice and ibuprofen. So for your safety and to eliminate unnecessary costs, unless there’s value added, imaging will be reserved for later if the issue does not improve on it's own.
When should I be worried and see a doctor?
Most back pain gradually improves with home treatment and self-care, usually within a few weeks. If yours doesn't improve in that time, you should see your health care provider.
In rare cases, back pain can signal a serious medical problem. You should seek immediate care if your back pain causes:
new bowel or bladder problems
is accompanied by a fever
or follows a fall or other traumatic injury
Also contact your provider right away if your back pain is severe and doesn't improve with rest, spreads down one or both legs (especially if the pain extends below the knee), causes weakness, numbness or tingling in one or both legs or is accompanied by unexplained weight loss.
How can I get rid of my back pain?
It’s best to start with heat and cold therapy, rest, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) medications like ibuprofen, naproxen or meloxicam. Tylenol can be helpful too but if we suspect the pain is caused by inflammation, then NSAIDs are the better choice. The reason - if you can decrease the underlying cause which is inflammation – you can decrease the pain. Also available over the counter are creams, ointments and pain patches that can provide temporary relief.
If you’re looking for something stronger than that, understand that doctors are no longer prescribing Norco or Percocet out of the gate without a compelling reason -- considering what we know now about the opioid epidemic. The truth is these medications only mask pain. They don’t help with the underlying cause and users many develop a tolerance to these medications over time rendering them less effective at standard doses.
Muscle relaxants can also be an option for managing back pain. Having a muscle spasm means that one or more of your muscles is twitching or cramping out of control. It can happen for a lot of different reasons, and can sometimes be very painful.
If your back pain has been lingering for a few weeks or even months (chronic pain), don’t be surprised if medication traditionally used for depression and seizures such as gabapentin or duloxetine are prescribed. Some research suggests that back pain has a neuropathic component, and that the nervous system is involved particularly when back pain turns chronic. Both these medications are given to treat nerve pain.
Other options to consider may include steroidal injections into the area of concern or even surgery to relieve the underlying cause of back pain.
Do I have to take medicine for my back pain to go away?
I know it sounds good to be able to take a pill and have the pain go away but that usually isn’t the case. Medications and procedures do come with side effects and risks, as well as contraindications. This is why it’s important to discuss your pain management plan with your health provider. In that discussion make sure to inquire about complementary alternative medicine (CAM), non-mainstream therapies and practices used along with conventional medicine. Your back is just one part of you as a whole so be mindful with how you feed and treat your body during the healing process because one part most likely affects another.
With that in mind, you’ll want to consider other non-medicinal, natural and lifestyle pain management options. Other options include:
supplements & vitamins
and eating anti-inflammatory foods.
The road to recovery is different for everyone. I hope this gives you some introductory tools for yours.
About the Author:
Nurse Alice Benjamin is a board certified Cardiac Clinical Nurse Specialist & emergency room nurse, affectionately known as America's favorite nurse. She is also a community health activist, college professor, author & TV medical correspondent. Her expertise has been featured in Black Enterprise, Huffington Post, XO Necole, Heart & Soul, JET, Rolling Out, Black America Web, Bustle and BlackDoctor.org. She's also appeared on The Doctors, Dr. Oz, Dr. Drew, FOX, CNN, HLN, TVOne and is a regular contributor for KTLA 5 & NBC 4 News here in Los Angeles, Ca.
Follow her on IG, Facebook, & Twitter: @AskNurseAlice