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Health Information To Your Health: Preventing and Treating Back Pain

"Most people with back pain tend to blame it on one thing they did or didn't do," says Sheila Dugan, MD, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist at Rush University Medical Center. "But it's usually the buildup of a number of factors that is responsible."

Preventing Back Pain
On the other hand, she adds, a number of simple daily habits can also help prevent or minimize the problem. To help stave off back pain or ease the pain you already experience, Dugan suggests the following adjustments in your daily life:

  • When standing, keep your back straight and distribute your weight evenly between your toes and heels.
  • When picking something up, take a wide stance and bend using your knees and hips instead of bending from the waist.
  • When sitting, make sure your feet are flat on the floor. Crossing your legs puts pressure on your lower back.
  • When working at the computer, make sure the computer screen is at eye level so that you don't tilt your chin up. If you use a laptop, prop it up so that the screen is at eye level and set up an external keyboard and mouse that allows your elbows to sit at a 90 degree angle.
  • When carrying a bag or purse, lighten your load so that you're carrying less than 10 percent of your body weight. (For example, if you weigh 130 pounds, your bag or purse should weigh less than 13 pounds.) If you need to carry heavy items, place them toward the bottom of the bag and alternate your bag between shoulders throughout the day.

In addition to developing these habits, other good preventive strategies include maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking and strengthening your core muscles, which can prevent pain caused by straining some muscles to compensate for the weakness of others. 

Treating Back Pain
Sometimes, though, back pain arises despite such efforts. In fact, about 80 percent of Americans experience it at some point in their lives. But it's important to remember, Dugan says, that not all of us experience the same thing.

Different types of back pain require different treatments — for example, stretches that relieve one kind of pain could intensify another kind — so if pain becomes severe, patients should consult a specialist to help them identify the right approach. "If your condition doesn't improve within a couple of weeks or it's associated with any kind of numbness or weakness in the legs, bowel problems or waking you from sleep, those are red flags, meaning that you need to see a spine expert," Dugan says. The good news is that most back problems don't reach that level of severity and can heal over time with rest.

Warning Signs
Look for these red flags to determine whether your back pain may signal more serious medical problems that should be assessed by a specialist:

  • Low back pain that shoots into your legs or neck pain that shoots into your arms. This may result from a pinched nerve.
  • Pain that worsens when you cough or sneeze, or pain accompanied by loss of bladder control, all of which may result from a bulging spinal disc.
  • Back pain in people with a diagnosis of osteoporosis, which may indicate a fracture even without a major injury.
  • A history of cancer, especially if you have been diagnosed with metastasis.
  • Persistent or debilitating pain despite rest, ice or heat, and over the counter medications, which might result from a variety of conditions, including those listed above.

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Please note: All physicians featured in Discover Rush Online are on the medical faculty of Rush University Medical Center. Some of the physicians featured are in private practice and, as independent practitioners, are not agents or employees of Rush University Medical Center.

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