Back pain is never fun, but low back pain can be especially problematic.
“Bending over, sitting, running—low back pain can make movement
of the body painful, which can have a negative effect on your quality
of life,” says
Giac Consiglieri, MD, a neurosurgeon with
Annadel Medical Group and director of neurosurgery and neurotrauma at
Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital. “It’s a widespread problem—it affects an estimated
31 million people in this country and the American Chronic Pain Association
says low back pain is the fifth most common reason for doctor visits in
the United States.”
There are a number of possible causes of low back pain. Among them: standard
wear and tear on the spine as we age (called spondylosis), a sprain or
strain in the lower back area, nerve compression (such as sciatica), a
narrowing of the spinal column (called spinal stenosis), trauma or injury,
or degenerated, herniated or ruptured discs in the spine. Rarer causes
include kidney stones, tumor or infection.
“In addition to those contributing factors, some people are at higher
risk for low back pain,” Dr. Consiglieri says. “Fitness level,
obesity, osteoporosis, pregnancy, genetics—they can all play a part.”
Low back pain can be acute, or a chronic, long-term problem. If you have
low back pain, you can use hot and cold treatments on the area to reduce
the pain, but it’s also good to have a doctor diagnose you, which
can include a thorough medical exam, a review of your medical history,
some neurological tests and possibly imaging tests such as lumbar x-rays,
a CT scan or MRI.
“Depending on the cause and type of pain, a doctor may recommend
particular exercises, such as yoga, or physical therapy to strengthen
the area, as well as over-the-counter or prescription pain relievers such
as aspirin, ibuprofen, muscle relaxants or topical treatments. You should
always talk to your doctor before taking any kind of medication for low
back pain,” Dr. Consiglieri says. “Some people opt for short-term
injection therapy, in which steroids are administered via an epidural.
And although you would think laying still on bed rest would alleviate
back pain, it can make it worse. Aside from avoiding particular movements
that trigger pain, such as lifting heavy items, you should try to do everything
you would normally do to maintain flexibility.”
In serious cases, such as with progressive nerve damage or a problem with
the spine’s structure, surgery may be needed. “There are several
types of surgical procedures for back pain, ranging from minimally invasive
procedures that fix vertebrae fractures to disc removal or replacement.
Your doctor will be able to explain your options in detail so you can
choose the best treatment,” Dr. Consiglieri says.
There are some things you can do to limit your risk of low back pain before
it happens. “Proper posture when sitting or standing can alleviate
strain on the back,” Dr. Consiglieri says. “Avoid gaining
extra weight—a good way to do this is with low-impact exercises
such as walking and swimming, which have the added benefit of maintaining
flexibility and strength in the body. Whatever workout program you do,
it should always include a stretching session before you begin, to prevent
injury. Finally, don’t smoke—it can block blood flow to the
spine and increase the risk of osteoporosis, which can cause low back
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