Back pain is a common complaint. Most people in the United States will experience low back pain at least once during their lives. Back pain is one of the most common reasons people go to the doctor or miss work.
On the bright side, you can take measures to prevent or lessen most back pain episodes. If prevention fails, simple home treatment and proper body mechanics will often heal your back within a few weeks and keep it functional for the long haul. Surgery is rarely needed to treat back pain.
Symptoms of back pain may include:
Back pain that lasts from a few days to a few weeks is considered acute. Pain that lasts for three months or longer is considered chronic.
When to see a doctor
In rare cases, back pain can signal a serious medical problem. Contact a doctor if your back pain:
Also, see your doctor if you start having back pain for the first time after age 50, or if you have a history of cancer, osteoporosis, steroid use, or drug or alcohol abuse.
Your back is an intricate structure composed of bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons and disks. Disks are the cartilage-like pads that act as cushions between the segments of your spine. Back pain can arise from problems with any of these component parts. In some people, no specific cause for their back pain can be found.
Sometimes a muscle spasm can cause or be associated with back pain.
Rare but serious conditions
Factors that increase your risk of developing low back pain include:
Preparing for your appointment
If you have back pain that's lasted for at least a few days and isn't improving, make an appointment with your family doctor or primary care provider.
Here's some information to help you prepare for your appointment and what to expect from your doctor.
What you can do
For back pain, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask questions during your appointment at any time that you don't understand something.
What to expect from your doctor
What you can do in the meantime
Tests and diagnosis
Diagnostic tests aren't usually necessary to confirm the cause of your back pain. However, if you do see your doctor for back pain, he or she will:
These assessments help determine where the pain comes from, how much you can move before pain forces you to stop and whether you have muscle spasms. They will also help rule out more serious causes of back pain.
If there is reason to suspect that you have a tumor, fracture, infection or other specific condition that may be causing your back pain, your doctor may order one or more tests:
Treatments and drugs
Most back pain gets better with a few weeks of home treatment and careful attention. A regular schedule of over-the-counter pain relievers may be all that you need to improve your pain. A short period of bed rest is OK, but more than a couple of days actually does more harm than good. If home treatments aren't working, your doctor may suggest stronger medications or other therapy.
Narcotics, such as codeine or hydrocodone, may be used for a short period of time with close supervision by your doctor.
Low doses of certain types of antidepressants — particularly tricyclic antidepressants, such as amitriptyline — have been shown to relieve chronic back pain, independent of their effect on depression.
Physical therapy and exercise
In some cases, your doctor may inject numbing medication and cortisone into or near the structures believed to be causing your back pain, such as the facet joints of the vertebrae. Located on the sides, top and bottom of each vertebra, these joints connect the vertebrae to one another and stabilize the spine while still allowing flexibility.
Types of back surgery include:
A number of alternative treatments are available that may help ease symptoms of back pain. Always discuss the benefits and risks with your doctor before starting any new alternative therapy.
In addition, a type of yoga called Viniyoga — which emphasizes both postures and breathing exercises — may help ease back pain and reduce the need for pain medications.
You may be able to avoid back pain by improving your physical condition and learning and practicing proper body mechanics.
To keep your back healthy and strong:
Use proper body mechanics:
Last Updated: 2010-02-09
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