Back pain is one of the most common reasons people absence from work and seeking medical treatment. It can be uncomfortable, debilitating and the leading cause of disability worldwide.
Back pain can affect people of any age – almost everyone has it at some point in their lives for different reasons. Acute back pain can last anywhere from 2 – 3 days to a few weeks, while chronic back pain is pain that usually lasts longer than 12 weeks.
Fortunately, you can take measures at home to prevent or relieve most back pain episodes.
The human back is composed of a complex structure of muscles, ligaments, tendons, disks, and bones, which work together to support the body and allows us to move around.
The vertebrae are cushioned together with cartilage-like pads called disks. Problems with any of these components can lead to back pain and go on to develop chronic back pain if the pain that lasts 12 weeks or longer.
In some cases of back pain, its cause remains unknown. Damage can result from strain, sprain, poor posture or lifting something awkwardly but often happens for no apparent reason.
The most common causes of back pain include:
Sprains and strains
- Ligament sprains and muscle or tendon strains from overuse are the most common causes of back pain. Most can be treated at home without seeing a doctor.
Degenerative disc disease
- When we were born, intervertebral discs are full of water and at their healthiest. Discs lose hydration and wear down as we get older. Once the disc is dehydrated, it cannot resist forces as well, and transfers force to the disc wall that may develop tears and cause pain or weakening that can lead to a herniation. The discs can also collapse and contribute destabilizes the spine and hinders the discs’ ability to protect vertebrae.
Bulging or ruptured discs
- Discs act as cushions between the vertebrae. The soft material inside a disc can bulge or rupture and press on, or “pinch,” nearby spinal nerves. However, you can have a bulging or ruptured disc without back pain so it is difficult to detect. Disc disease is often found incidentally when you have spine X-rays for some other reason like being injured.
- Osteoarthritis (The most common form of arthritis) can affect the lower back. Arthritis in the spine occurs when the cartilage that cushions the ends of the bones where they meet to form joints breaks down or wears away. This breakdown affects the the vertebrae joints. As a result, movement of the spine can cause irritation, further damage and the formation of bony outgrowths called spurs. These spurs can press on nerves and causing pain.
- The most common cause of osteoporosis pain is a spinal compression fracture when your bones become porous and brittle. It can cause: Sudden, severe back pain that gets worse when you are standing, walking or jogging with some relief when you lie down.
Other causes of back pain
Many other potential causes of back pain are present, but most of these are rare. Be sure to see your doctor if you have constant back pain that is not going away.
Your doctor will perform tests to determine if you have a rarer cause after ruling out the more common causes of back pain. This may include:
- Displacement, called degenerative spondylolisthesis, of one vertebral body to another
- Loss of lower spinal cord nerve activity called cauda equina syndrome (A medical emergency)
- Spine infection, fungal or bacterial, such as Staphylococcus, E. coli, or Tuberculosis
- Cancer of the spine or a nonmalignant tumor
- Infection with the kidneys or kidney stones
Back pain can range from an aching muscle to a sense of firing, burning or stabbing. In addition, with bending, spinning, raising, standing, jogging or walking, the pain will radiate down your leg or worsen.
Typically, back pain is described by a combination of the following symptoms:
- A dull aching feeling in the lower back
- A pain that can radiate down the leg to the foot by stabbing or shooting
- An inability without discomfort to stand up straight
- A reduced range of motion and diminished ability to flex the back
The symptoms of back pain caused by pressure or misuse are usually short-lived but can last for days or weeks. If symptoms have been present for more than three months, back pain is chronic.
Whether to see a doctor?
With home treatment and self-care, most back pain gradually improves, usually within a 2 – 3 weeks. Make sure contact your doctor if your back pain:
- Continues for a few weeks
- Is severe and doesn’t improve after take a rest
- Spreads down one or both legs, especially if the pain is lower than the knee
- Induces weakness numbness or tingling in one or both legs
- An unexplained weight loss
In rare cases, back pain can signal a serious medical issue. Seek instant care if your back pain:
- Triggers new problems with the bowel or bladder
- Is accompanied by a high fever
- Follows a fall, blow to your back or other back injury
Anyone including children and teenagers, can develop back pain. These factors could put you at higher risk of developing back pain:
- Age – As you get older, back pain is more prominent, beginning at age 30 or 40.
- Lack of exercise – Weak, unused muscles in your back and abdominal could lead to back pain.
- Excess weight – Excess body weight puts your back under extra tension.
- Diseases – Some types of cancer and arthritis may contribute to back pain.
- Improper lifting – It can lead to back pain if you using your back instead of your legs.
- Circumstances in psychology – It seems that people susceptible to depression and anxiety have a greater risk of back pain.
- Smoking – Smokers have increased rates of back pain. This may occur because smoking prompts more coughing, which may lead to herniated discs. Smoking can also reduce the flow of blood to the spine, thus raising the risk of osteoporosis
- Emotional health – Often, your mental health also has an effect on your risk of back pain. When you have a difficult work or have depression and anxiety, you might be at a higher risk of back pain.
- Gender – Lower back pain also appears to be more common in women than in men, possibly due to hormonal factors.
Many back pain treatment options can be customized to an individual patient’s needs. Treatments include home care, herbal remedies, alternative medicine, or even surgery.
Depending on the diagnosis of the patient, some treatments may be more effective than others. Many people find that a combination of treatments is best instead of using only one method at a time.
Self-Care for Back Pain at home
Basic natural remedies applied at home can be effective for treating mild or acute muscle strain pain, as well as reducing the effects of chronic, severe pain. These methods include:
- One variant of resting is to stay active but avoid activities, movements and positions that aggravate the pain. For example, if the pain is made worse by long periods of sitting in a car or at a desk, then set a timer to get up every 20 minutes and walk around or gently stretch.
- If the pain is made worse by standing, avoid chores that require standing such as washing dishes at the sink. Avoiding, or minimizing, activities, movements and positions that worsen the pain will help prevent or reduce painful back spasms and allow for a better healing environment.
- Heat from a warm bath, hot water bottle, electric heating pad, or chemical or adhesive heat wraps can stimulates blood flow to the affected area and helps facilitate healing. Increased blood flow brings nutrients and oxygen that muscles need to recover and stay healthy. If the low back is painful due to inflammation, ice or cold packs can be used to to minimize swelling. It’s necessary to protect the skin while applying heat or ice to prevent tissue damage.
- For most people, alternating heat and ice can be especially helpful when returning to activity: Applying heat first helps warm up your muscles and get through your workout with ease; applying ice after activity reduces the chances of an area becoming irritated and swollen from exercise.
- Yoga involves specific poses, movements, exercises, and breathing techniques. Some may help strengthen the muscles of the back, release spine and improve posture. For low back pain, yoga can be particularly beneficial for the muscles that support the back and spine, such as the paraspinal muscles that help you bend your spine, the multifidus muscles that stabilize your vertebrae, and the transverse abdominis in the abdomen, which also helps stabilize your spine.
Stretching for Back Pain
- Growing evidence supports the benefits of stretching muscles in the low back, buttocks, hips, and legs (especially the hamstring muscles). The weight of the upper body is support by these muscles. The more mobile these muscles are the more the back can move without damage. Starting a small stretch for 20 to 30 seconds and stopping a stretch if it causes pain.
- Low-impact aerobic exercise increases the flow of blood and supports healing from an injury without jarring the spine. Low-impact aerobics can include using stationary bikes, elliptical or step machines, walking, swimming and water therapy. People with low back pain who regularly do low-impact aerobic exercise report fewer recurring pain episodes and are more likely to stay active and functional when pain flares.
- Any exercise that elevates heart rate for a sustained period of time benefits the body. Regular physical activity is necessary for maintaining the range of motion and flexibility of a healthy spine. When spinal structures go unused for too long, stiffness and pain can worsen.
Non-medical treatments can be referred to as alternative or complementary care. The term “alternative” should not imply inferior, but instead not traditional according to western medical principles.
Many back pain patients experience relief from alternative therapies. Popular options include:
- Physical adjustments to the spine are performed by a chiropractor or other healthcare provider with the goals of improving mobility and reducing stiffness, discomfort, or pain. To correct the spinal structures, hand thrusts of varying speed and force are applied. Manual manipulation has been found to alleviate back pain in some people.
- Based in ancient Chinese medicine, acupuncture stimulates points on the body thought to correct the ‘qi’ or life force of the body. It is believed that proper qi reduce pain and discomfort in the body. During a session, thin needles are inserted into the skin for about an hour. Acupuncture has been shown to provide significant pain relief for many people.
- Applied to the low back, massage therapy can alleviate the muscle spasms that usually lead to low back pain. Massage also improves blood flow to the low back, which speeds up healing by supplying damaged muscles with nutrients and oxygen.
- Meditation an help minimize the perception of pain, and can reduce depression, anxiety and sleep problems that commonly occur with chronic pain. Meditative pain relief techniques include everything from deep breathing exercises to an altered focus approach.
How Can You Prevent Lower Back Pain?
Although your genetic makeup does not avoid aging or change, lifestyle changes can help control lower back pain and prevent it. Having a healthy lifestyle will also make you less likely to suffer an accidental injury.
- Improve your physical fitness – People who are not physically fit are more likely to experience lower back pain because strong core muscles help support the lower back.
- Stay active – Usually, People who lead sedentary lives may be more likely to injure themselves when they do exert themselves. As far as back health is concerned, it’s better to do a smaller amount of physical activity most days of the week than to sit all week and over-exert exercise yourself on the weekends.
- Lose weight if necessary – The heavier you are, the more pressure you have on your lumbar vertebrae. Being overweight or obese can put stress on the back and lead to lower back pain.
- Lift heavy objects the right way – When lifting, make sure to squat so that your hips and knees do a lot of the work. Always keep the load close to your chest while you lift.
- Make your workspace as ergonomic as possible – When you sit at a desk, make sure your chair has plenty of low-back support and your hips are at a right angle to the floor.
- Manage your mental health – People who have anxiety and depression, or face excessive stress, may be more likely to develop back pain over time. And, let’s face it, living with pain in your back can be hard, too. Making your mental health a priority can help alleviate your risk of lower back pain.
- Don’t use tobacco products – In addition to all the other health problems tobacco use causes, it can limit blood flow and oxygen to the discs, allowing them to degenerate faster.
- Make common-sense choices to prevent injury – When in a moving car, wear your seatbelt at all times. Remember don’t carry (or allow your child to carry) very heavy backpacks. And, while it should go without saying, don’t spend a weekend doing heavy gardening or having a tennis match if you’ve been sedentary for a few months.