If you’ve ever said, “Oh, my aching back!” rest assured that you’re definitely not alone. “As a medical symptom, back pain is second only to the common cold in this country,” says Dr. Richard S. Lee, a spine surgeon with Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Southern California.
“As many as 90% of American adults will have one or more episodes of back pain this year,” he adds.
Numerous conditions can result in the symptom of back pain, including:
- Spine degeneration or arthritis.
- Muscle sprain/strain.
- Disc herniation.
- Bone fracture.
- Trauma or injury.
- Poor posture.
- Weight gain.
“But fortunately, the most common cause of back pain is simply muscular pain,” Lee says.
In addition to these conditions, poor ergonomics can contribute to back pain, says Dr. Ken Hansraj, an orthopedic surgery specialist in Poughkeepsie, New York. Especially when working, if you’re “stressed out and hunched over the computer,” that can impact the spine and lead to the development of pain. “When we’re stressed, we stop breathing or take shallower breaths,” and we tend to sit hunched forward. All that tension can build up in the muscles along the neck and spine and lead to aches and pains.
The arrival of the cellular device has also led to some people feeling pain in the neck and upper back, a condition dubbed “text neck” or “tech neck.” Hansraj quantified the impact of looking down at a phone all the time in a paper he published in 2014. When your head is upright at zero degrees, the head weighs 10 to 12 pounds. But as your neck bends forward, the angle of tilt can exert greater stresses on the spine. Hansraj found that at a 15-degree angle, the weight is about 27 pounds. When you get to 60 degrees, it’s 60 pounds. His theory is that having to support this increased torque could lead to the development of spinal problems.
No matter what’s causing it, back and neck pain is incredibly common, and there are several ways you can reduce its severity. The following five tips may help you manage chronic back pain issues:
1. Anti-inflammatory Medications
Depending on what’s causing your back pain, you may be able to get some relief with over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen. In more intense cases, oral steroids might be advisable, says Dr. Whitney Luke, vice chair of clinical operations in the department of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus.
“Many people are not aware that they have 24 pairs of beautiful spine joints, and those joints need range of motion,” Hansraj says. “You show them love by moving them.” Sitting still all day while hunched over a computer or phone isn’t the kind of love your spine wants, he says. Stretch and move your neck and back frequently throughout the day.
“For those with chronic back pain, the most important treatment is daily exercise,” Luke says. Specifically, exercise that focuses on “abdominal and core strengthening, such as aquatic therapy, yoga or Pilates, as well as increasing endurance can provide health benefits such as increased energy levels, weight loss and improved conditioning.”
Hansraj adds that focusing on the breath and practicing belly breathing can help you cope with stress and pain while also helping build up your core muscle strength. “This deep belly diaphragmatic breathing is a very active type of breathing. You’re moving the spinal nerves in the spinal channel and you’re massaging them,” he says. “You’re showing love to the nerves and they will love you back.”
Because most cases of back pain are muscular, the simple remedy of resting to limit strain on the affected area and alternating heat and ice to loosen up the muscles and reduce swelling can help alleviate that pain. Hansraj recommends taking a hot shower before bed to increase range of motion in the back and to relax you so you can get better sleep at night.
Hansraj also advises that you get the right mattress and pillow for your body. Everybody is different, and some people benefit from a firmer mattress or pillow while others need a softer one, so experiment to see what works best for you. “My recommendation and the way I sleep, I put a firm pillow underneath and then I put a softer pillow on top, so my head falls into the softness but is supported by the firmness,” he says. Maintaining good posture when standing, sitting and lying down can all help your back stop hurting.
4. Avoiding or Quitting Smoking
“Smoking has been associated with back pain,” Lee says, and it’s also implicated in a long list of other health conditions and diseases. If you’re still smoking, it’s time to work on kicking the habit for good. Talk to your doctor about smoking cessation programs that might help you ditch the cigarettes.
Carrying extra weight, especially if it’s concentrated in the abdomen, can put a lot of extra stress on the muscles in the back that may lead to soreness or pain. Eating a healthy diet and staying well-hydrated can help you drop some excess weight and potentially alleviate pain in the back.
Although many cases of back pain usually improve on their own, there are certain signs that mean you should get checked out by a health care professional. “If you have back pain lasting more than a week, consider vising your family doctor,” Lee says.
And “if pain becomes severe and does not improve, then a visit to your physician would be warranted,” Luke says. For example, your doctor might be more concerned if you have a personal history of cancer or have recently had surgery that may put you at higher risk of infection.
- Leg weakness and/or numbness.
- Difficulty walking.
- Numbness in your genital region.
- Difficulty urinating or having bowel movements.
- Fever and/or chills.
- Weight loss.
- Non-healing wound.