Around 65 million adults in the United States have had back pain recently, and 16 million of them have it, well, all the time. In fact, back pain is one of the top reasons people miss work.
While you may feel like you have a bum back, you’re definitely not alone, and your pain is likely caused by something totally normal. The good news is that most back pain can be treated without medication or surgery; you just need a little bit of time and dedication.
Ehren Allen, DPT, a physical therapist and certified orthopedic manual therapist with Jacksonville Orthopaedic Institute (JOI), and Brandon Kambach, MD, an orthopedic spine surgeon with Baptist Health and JOI, generally see patients who have back pain for one of a few reasons. Both agree that many patients’ pain results from damage to the disks in the spine, which provide a cartilage cushion between the vertebrae that help your spine be flexible and absorb shock.
1. Poor posture
“We were not made to sit all day, but the majority of the workforce is at a computer for more than eight hours daily,” Allen said. “When we sit, the pelvis tends to slide forward over time, which leads to a forward bend in the spine. This places excessive force on the disks in the lower spine. When this force is applied for eight hours a day over many years, the disks and support structures of the lumbar spine break down, causing pain.”
“Carrying around excessive body weight can lead to many health issues. One of those issues is lower back pain. Obesity puts excessive pressure on the spine, and eventually, the structures of the spine can wear out,” said Allen.
3. Improper lifting technique
“Imagine compressing a balloon and then twisting it. All of that pressure can lead to damage or injury," Allen explained. "When we bend forward from the spine to pick up an object, we place the spine in an unideal position. The forward bend compresses the front of the lumbar disks and pushes the fluid in the disk backward. If you then add the force of lifting a heavy object, the movement can damage the disk.”
4. Core strength
“Your core is a group of several muscles between the spine and pelvis that act as stabilizers,” said Dr. Kambach. “Unlike muscles that push and pull, core muscles create a support structure around the spine, which allows us to walk, bend and twist. Weak core muscles cause an imbalance which forces other parts of the spine to take on more stress.”
“Most injuries of the low back are minor strains, which will typically heal with rest. However, if not treated correctly, even strains can turn into repetitive injuries and chronic problems. Common activities that can result in injury are bending forward at the waist, or lifting and twisting. These activities place significantly higher amounts of stress on the low back, which can result in injury,” Dr. Kambach said.
Preventing back pain
These spine specialists agree that once you’ve identified the cause of your back pain, you can make changes to prevent it from coming back or getting worse. There are also ways to ease back pain at home.
- Apply heat to painful areas of the back.
- Rest when injured.
- Use a standing work desk, which helps the spine stay in the ideal alignment.
- Set an alarm to readjust your posture every 20 minutes if you sit while working.
- Exercise regularly to maintain a healthy BMI and keep the spine and surrounding structures healthy.
- When lifting heavy objects, keep your back straight, squat with your feet shoulder-width apart, and bend from the hips and knees instead of your back. Then, lift using your legs.
- Learn proper exercise techniques from a physical therapist, and work on strengthening your core.
When to call your doctor
When should you set aside at-home treatments and make an appointment with your doctor? Allen said to call your primary care physician if you have back pain that lasts more than a few days.
“If back pain is severe, and it persists for several days, it is probably best to go to the doctor, who may recommend physical therapy. Physical therapists can help with manual therapy (massaging the muscles or manipulating the joints) and exercises for your specific symptoms, as well as help you increase core strength for faster recovery. Physical therapy is usually the first line of defense with back pain,” he said.
He added if a patient experiences loss of strength in a leg, pain that wakes him or her up at night, inability to stand, or severe pain after a physical trauma, he or she should call the doctor right away.
“Seek more advanced care for your spine if you tried a round of physical therapy and your pain is the same or worse,” said Dr. Kambach. “Also, if the pain radiates into the legs, or you notice numbness, tingling or weakness, you likely need a specialist.”
If you’re experiencing acute or chronic back pain that interferes with your daily life, make an appointment with a Baptist Primary Care physician near you by calling 904.202.4YOU. Your doctor can connect you with specialists you may need, such as Baptist Rehabilitation or the orthopedic and rehabilitation specialists at Jacksonville Orthopedic Institute.