About 80 percent of the population experiences back pain at some point in their lives. Back pain can range from a dull, constant ache to a sharp, sudden pain that makes it hard to move. It can be short-lived or long-lasting. It can start quickly if you fall or lift something too heavy, or it can get worse slowly over time. Discs that sit between the vertebrae of the spine can rupture or break down. Muscles can strain or tear.
According to David H. Clements, MD, Director of Orthopedic Spine Surgery at Cooper Bone and Joint Institute, a wide variety of factors can increase your risk of developing back problems: getting older; being out of shape or overweight; having a job that requires lifting, pushing or pulling while twisting your spine; and having poor posture.
Smoking is another possible risk factor (Smoking reduces blood flow to the lower spine and causes the spinal discs to degenerate.), as is race (African American women are 2-3 times more likely than Caucasian women to have part of the lower spine slip out of place.)
Back pain also can be a sign of many other medical conditions, including arthritis, pregnancy, kidney stones, infections, tumors and stress.
“That’s why it’s a good idea to see a doctor if your back pain is particularly bad or lasts for more than a few days,” Dr. Clements said.
You can help prevent back pain by standing up straight and minimizing the amount of heavy lifting you do. When you must lift something that’s heavy, bend your legs and keep your back straight.
Exercising and keeping your back muscles strong are among the best ways to minimize your risk of back pain. Maintain a healthy weight or shed some pounds if you weigh too much.
“If you do experience back pain, treatment depends on what kind of pain it is,” Dr. Clements said. “Most people with back pain don’t need surgery, even if the pain is chronic. Surgery is reserved for situations in which other treatments don’t work.”
The non-surgical treatments offered in the Spine Program at Cooper Bone and Joint institute include pain management through medications, therapeutic injections, pain modulation techniques and acupuncture, as well as physical therapy and rehabilitation.
“Proper posture and body-mechanics training, therapeutic exercise, and other techniques can increase the spine’s strength or flexibility, enabling patients to manage pain and prevent future episodes of pain,” Dr. Clements said.
To keep your back healthy, orthopedists at the Cooper Bone and Joint Institute offer the following advice:
- Following any period of prolonged inactivity, begin a program of regular low-impact exercises. Speed walking, swimming, or stationary-bike riding 30 minutes a day can increase muscle strength and flexibility. Yoga also can help stretch and strengthen muscles and improve posture. Ask your physician or orthopedist for a list of low-impact exercises appropriate for your age and designed to strengthen lower back and abdominal muscles.
- Always stretch before exercise or other strenuous physical activity.
- Don’t slouch when standing or sitting. When standing, keep your weight balanced on your feet. Your back supports weight most easily when curvature is reduced.
- At home or work, make sure your work surface is at a comfortable height for you.
- Sit in a chair with good lumbar support and proper position and height for the task. Keep your shoulders back. Switch sitting positions often and periodically walk around the office or gently stretch muscles to relieve tension. A pillow or rolled-up towel placed behind the small of your back can provide some lumbar support. If you must sit for a long period of time, rest your feet on a low stool or a stack of books to keep your knees higher than your hips.
- Wear comfortable, low-heeled shoes.
- Sleep on your side to reduce any curve in your spine. Always sleep on a firm surface.
- Ask for help when transferring an ill or injured family member from a reclining to a sitting position or when moving the patient from a chair to a bed.
- Don’t try to lift objects too heavy for you. Lift with your knees, pull in your stomach muscles, and keep your head down and in line with your straight back. Keep the object close to your body. Do not twist when lifting.
- Maintain proper nutrition and diet to reduce and prevent excessive weight, especially weight around the waistline that taxes lower back muscles. A diet with sufficient daily intake of calcium, phosphorus, and vitamin D helps to promote new bone growth.
- If you smoke, quit. Smoking reduces blood flow to the lower spine and causes the spinal discs to degenerate.