Face it: At some point, you’ll feel back pain

  • By Dr. Elizabeth Smoots Herald Columnist
  • Monday, November 10, 2008 2:57pm
  • Life

Six back pain myths:

Myth 1: Most episodes of low back pain last a long time.

Fact: Most people with low back pain start to feel better within a few weeks. In the vast majority of cases, the pain improves or completely resolves in four to 12 weeks. That’s good news since 80 percent of us can expect to experience back pain during our lives.

The bad news is that relapses can occur and, when they do, pain that keeps coming back can make your life miserable. According to the National Institute of Health, back pain is the most common cause of job-related disability and a frequent contributor to limited activity and missed work.

It’s important to see your doctor if the pain persists, builds in intensity over a few weeks’ duration, or is very severe. Serious symptoms that may require immediate medical attention include weakness or numbness of the leg, foot or groin; difficulty moving; loss of bowel or bladder control; difficult or painful urination; fever; or unexplained weight loss.

Myth 2: Injury or lifting causes most back pain.

Fact: “There are very few times we have this story come into our offices,” said Dr. Randy Shelerud, a physiatrist and director of the Mayo Clinic Spine Center. “It’s often something I’ve woken up with or I just was bending forward to pick lint off the carpet, something very trivial, and — boom — their back started to hurt.”

Myth 3: X-rays are the best indicator of pain.

Fact: There is no test that can pinpoint the source of pain in most patients. Especially in those with chronic pain, the nervous system has gradually reprogrammed itself to feel pain even though a physical cause might not be found. The solution in many cases is to train the brain to react to pain differently.

Pain management can give patients tools to cope with pain better. Oftentimes, mind-body techniques such as biofeedback, breathing exercises, hypnosis, meditation or yoga can help.

Myth 4: Someone with a herniated disc needs to have surgery.

Fact: Surgery usually isn’t necessary. Typically, only patients with specific symptoms or signs that don’t improve with medical treatment require surgery.

Myth 5: Low back pain is disabling.

Fact: “The best thing you can do for back pain is not be afraid of it,” said Dr. Ralph Gay, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist at the Mayo Clinic. “One of the most telling things that I hear from patients is that I’m afraid of the pain. I’m afraid it’s going to come back. Or I’m afraid that I’m going to do something and be crippled.”

As a result of this fear-avoidance behavior, many people with back pain become physically deconditioned and mentally stressed out, Gay said. Instead, he advocates consulting with your doctor to learn more about why you are having back pain.

Myth 6: In most situations, back pain is unavoidable.

Fact: You can prevent many common types of back pain. Since weak muscles are more susceptible to injury, one of the most important things you can do is to stay physically active. Some of the best activities for your back include walking, swimming, Pilates, yoga and tai chi.

Proper body mechanics can also reduce back risk. Tips include using a lumbar support while sitting or placing a stool under one foot at a time while standing. Learn how to lift objects correctly and ask for help lifting heavy or awkward objects.

For more information: Mayo Clinic, www.mayoclinic.com.

Contact Dr. Elizabeth Smoots, a board-certified family physician and fellow of the American Academy of Family Physicians, at doctor@­practicalprevention.com. Before adhering to any recommendations consult your health care provider.

&Copy; 2008 Elizabeth S. Smoots

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