Back pain is the second most common reason that people go to see their doctor; second only to cold or flu symptoms. Those who have experienced back pain know that it can be debilitating and life-altering. Thankfully, statistics show us that 70-80% of back pain sufferers can get better without surgery within 8-10 weeks. Avoiding an occurrence of back pain would be ideal and will be the topic of this article.
I often tell patients that prevention is the best treatment for avoiding back pain. I often use the example of changing the oil in your car;
there is nothing wrong with the car, but you take it to the shop for routine maintenance that helps keep the engine in good working order. Typically, people don’t seek help for back pain until the damage is done or the pain becomes severe. However, research indicates that there may be ways to avoid the onset of back pain. A multi-modal approach typically works best; one that involves dedication and hard work. Unfortunately, there is no magic cure or internet gadget that can substitute for lifestyle changes and developing healthier habits.
We have all heard about strengthening our “core muscles” but what are they and what do they do? The core muscles encircle the lower trunk and abdomen and act as a support for the body. Imagine a weightlifter’s belt around their waist that gives them more stability and strength. The weaker these core muscles are, the more pressure there is on the ligaments, bones and discs of the spine to support the body. In general, exercise such as walking or light weights can help back pain, but strengthening the core muscles can help, as well. Yoga is a method of exercise that focuses on core muscle strengthening as well as deep breathing and biofeedback techniques that can relieve stress and anxiety – both of which can also contribute to back pain. For those who feel they are too inflexible or immobile, chair yoga can be a wonderful option. It involves stretching while sitting in or using the support of a chair. Tai Chi can also be beneficial; it involves slow, focused movements with deep breathing and mental concentration. The two methods not only strengthen the core muscles, but also help with stability and flexibility; these are critical factors in avoiding falls as we get older. In people over the age of 65, falling is a leading cause of hospitalization – the injuries can be debilitating and cause a loss of independence.
Chiropractic care and osteopathic manipulation are also treatments that can address and help prevent back pain. Techniques that realign the spine can improve posture and relieve muscle tightness and spasm. Therapeutic massage can also be beneficial in both the treatment and prevention of back pain through hands-on muscle manipulation, increased blood circulation that can help heal muscle injury, and increased brain endorphin levels that can reduce depression and anxiety.
Lifestyle changes can also contribute to the reduction in low-back pain. Smoking cigarettes and obesity increase risk for back pain. Nicotine impairs delivery of oxygen-rich blood to the bones and tissues which can lead to degeneration of the discs that already have lower blood flow. Obesity can alter the mechanics of the pelvis and the alignment of the spine which can lead to back pain. Quitting smoking and reaching an ideal body weight can reduce the incidence, frequency and intensity of low-back pain. Repetitive heavy lifting and twisting can also result in back pain. In these circumstances, ergonomic work practices can be beneficial. In addition, I see many patients who injure their backs at home by performing lifting or carrying chores or projects they are not used to, or do not have the proper equipment to perform safely.
Ultimately, there is nothing guaranteed to 100% avoid back pain. However, through initiating core strengthening, maintaining good posture and alignment and practicing healthier lifestyles, we can hope to reduce the onset and the length of a back pain episode.