Experts estimate that 70 to 85 percent of Americans will experience back pain in their lifetime. Low back pain can be a symptom of many different causes, including overuse or improper use, strenuous activity, joint problems, smoking and obesity.
Most low back pain can be treated without surgery. Many nonsurgical approaches for relieving back pain focus on reducing inflammation and restoring proper function and strength to the back. If you seek relief from acute low back pain, here are a few strategies that could help:
Over-the-counter pain medications. Try taking acetaminophen, ibuprofen or naproxen. When it comes to low back pain, it’s best to take these medications on a regular schedule rather than wait until pain becomes severe.
Rest. Find a comfortable position, such as lying on your side with a pillow between your knees. Keep changing positions and, every couple hours, go for a walk. Ultimately, activity is better for your back than rest, so limit the resting strategy to a day or two.
Ice or heat. Some people find relief using heating pads or taking warm showers at regular intervals. Ice packs may also do the trick. Apply ice or heat treatment for no more than 20 minutes each. Too much ice can cause more pain, and remember to never apply heat while asleep.
Walking. Movement helps your muscles stay strong. The muscles of your trunk or core support your spine. Strengthening these muscles by walking or doing other exercises can decrease your chance of injury or pain.
Other types of exercise. Aerobic exercise conditions your heart and other muscles, maintains health and speeds recovery. Strengthening exercises that focus on your back, stomach and leg muscles can also help the back, as can stretching exercises to keep your muscles and other supporting tissues flexible and less prone to injury.
Surgery. In some instances, surgery may be necessary. Surgery for back pain is suggested if you continue to experience considerable pain despite nonsurgical treatments and if the cause of your back pain is due to something that can be surgically corrected. Below are some standard surgical procedures:
- Discectomy, which removes pressure on a nerve root from a bulging disc or bone spur.
- Foraminotomy, an operation that “cleans out” or enlarges the bone hole where a nerve root exits the spinal canal.
- Nucleoplasty, which uses radiofrequency energy to treat patients with low back pain from a contained or mildly herniated disc.
- Spinal fusion, a procedure used to strengthen the spine and prevent painful movements.
The good news is that many spine surgeries can be done minimally invasively, meaning surgeons use smaller incisions. “With minimally invasive techniques, we can have you up and going in no time,” says John O’Toole, MD, a neurosurgeon at Rush. “Because of faster recovery times, people are getting back to work and other regular daily activities quicker than before.”
Prevention is Key
The best way to prevent minor back problems is acquiring stronger stomach muscles by doing a regular routine of strengthening and stretching exercises and using proper lifting techniques. Stretching before or after strengthening exercises can help relieve muscle tightness that occurs during your exercises.
Get the Help You Need
Back pain is not an end all. There are ways to deal with — and even eliminate — your back pain. Your doctor can help you find a solution that works for your particular type of pain.
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