Woman with Lower Back Pain

“Oh, my aching back!” Whenever I hear someone say that, I want to ask them, “What are you doing about it?” Back pain, like any musculoskeletal injury, should not be ignored.

There are three basic types of back pain:

  • Acute – pain lasting less than three months. This pain is often related to a specific activity. You may have moved the wrong way to pick something up, lifted something heavy, twisted, bent incorrectly, or have been doing something new. Ice or heat (whichever feels better) and over-the-counter medication is helpful at this stage. Consider seeing your physician or a physical therapist (PT) for help if your pain doesn’t start to subside in a day or two.
  • Recurrent – acute symptoms come back or the pain develops slowly over time. You may have helped your cousin move and now your back hurts again. Improving your fitness, using proper body mechanics, and maintaining a healthy weight may help you avoid frequent recurrences of back pain. If your acute pain cleared up on its own before but is now back, it may be time to see a PT to keep the pain from becoming chronic.
  • Chronic – pain lasting longer than three months. The good news is that there are things you can do to help end chronic pain — you don’t have to suffer.

How to Treat Lower Back Pain

Treatment for low back pain is as varied as the ways that you can hurt yourself. In general, proper exercise and managing the pain (heat, ice, stretching, and over-the-counter medication) can go a long way toward helping control your back pain and improve your overall quality of life.

Evidence suggests that low back pain can be treated effectively with physical therapy. You may not need surgery or drugs. In addition to helping you with the pain you are having now, a PT can teach you about body mechanics to help avoid future instances of back pain and show you ways to exercise safely.

How to Prevent Lower Back Pain

  • How are you sitting as you read this? If you are in a chair, think about lifting your head up to straighten your spine and putting your feet flat on the floor.
  • Stay active. Even if your back hurts try and do gentle stretching or walking. After 24 hours, bed rest can do more harm than good.
  • Use good body mechanics, which includes lifting with your legs, pushing instead of pulling, and keeping a load close to your body when carrying.
  • Get up and move around. Avoid prolonged sitting in the car, at your desk, or in front of the computer. A quick stretch break is good for your back and your mind.

The Mayo Clinic describes a good, basic low back daily exercise program here.

A visit to the doctor is necessary if you have:

  • Numbness or tingling
  • Severe pain that does not improve with rest
  • Pain after a fall or an injury
  • Pain plus any of these problems:
    • Trouble urinating
    • Weakness
    • Numbness in your legs
    • Fever
    • Weight loss when not on a diet.

For more information, see the Physical Therapist’s Guide to Low Back Pain and the Low Back Pain Fact Sheet from the NIH National Institute of Neurological Orders and Stroke.

Cathy Shearer, MPA, PT, GCS, is an inpatient physical therapist at The University of Vermont Medical Center, and Education Chair of the Vermont Chapter of the American Physical Therapy Association.  

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