The Truth About Back Pain

Back pain is ubiquitous. Because a number of things can cause back pain, almost everyone will experience it. That’s why back pain is one of the most common complaints that bring people to the doctor’s office. Perhaps because of its ubiquity, a number of myths and old-wives’ tales have sprung up around pain in the lower back.

For example, many people believe that the problem is the desk chair, and the solution is to replace the chair with something else. While it is true that until relatively recently, office chair’s design was built around the perceived status rather than the comfort, of the sitter, the solution usually proposed, sitting on an exercise ball, does little to help the back. Similarly, stretching and massage might seem like good strategies to fight pain in the back, but in fact, when there is inflammation of the nerves, stretching will only make things worse, and when the pain is caused by muscle spasms in certain areas, massage will do nothing.

The good news is that surgery is not an inevitability. In most cases, back pain can be treated medically or with simple lifestyle changes. Sometimes, over-the-counter painkillers can be enough to provide relief. Stronger medication, and anti-inflammatory drugs, are also used. Sometimes, simply avoiding heavy lifting and making sure not to sit too long can help the pain go away for good. Even exercise can help—in one study, people who were on temporary medical leave due to back pain were able to return to work in two-thirds as much time if they exercised. Exercise helps people heal faster, and the endorphins can take the edge off the pain.

Regular exercise is also suggested for avoiding back pain in the first place. Aerobic exercises help build muscle and bone strength, improves endurance, and enhances flexibility. It can also help keep weight under control, which means less strain on the back while standing and walking. Even something as simple as good posture can help ease the strain—indeed, that is what makes it good posture. Slouching contorts the back muscles and holds them in an unnatural position. Perhaps one of the most famous pieces of advice to avoid back pain is to lift with the knees. Lifting heavy objects by bending forward at the waist means the muscles in the back end up doing all of the work; crouching, grasping the object, and hoisting it while rising to a standing position buts much of the burden on the less fragile leg muscles.

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