There are some conditions in which myths prevail as truth; back pain is one such condition. Here are three powerful myths about back pain, and the myth-busting truths behind them.
Powerful myth #1: There is nothing that can really be done, so you have to live with the pain
Maybe it’s an old injury that keeps flaring up, or maybe it is a new strain or exercise regimen that has you feeling like back pain is just a part of waking up every morning. Sure, you take some over-the-counter pain medications every now and then, but back pain feels like it’s always going to be part of your normal day.
Myth buster: Many different treatments exist to help make back pain manageable, and, in some cases, to eliminate it altogether
While it’s true that some types of back pain are harder to alleviate than others, pain specialists and researchers have many different tools at their disposal to help reduce or even eliminate back pain. Some of them are more traditional than others, and it is up to you and your doctor to work together to find which one works best for the back pain you have.
Here are just a few treatment options:
- Over-the-counter (OTC) medicines: These include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines like ibuprofen.
- Massage: Sometimes simply massaging the muscles surrounding the affected area can offer relief.
- Core strengthening program: Especially for low back pain, a program of core strengthening exercises can help the long muscles of the low back support the body. The lumbar spine is the only bony structure holding the body upright in the low back. A strong core can help to rehabilitate tightness and strain.
- Injections: In addition to offering pain relief, injections can be a great diagnostic tool for pain specialists. Facet injections and epidural steroid injections both use numbing agents like lidocaine to numb the affected nerve. Pain relief lasts for varying amounts of time, and this procedure can be repeated up to three times a year. Importantly, these injections offer pain relief that allows patients to begin a course of exercise and physical therapy.
- Minimally-invasive surgical procedures: These can include procedures like continuous catheter nerve blocks or spinal cord stimulator implants. In general, these procedures are done under local anesthetic, have minimal side effects (if any), and can be completed in less than 15 minutes.
- Surgical intervention: In the case of herniated discs, pain specialists may recommend a discectomy to remove herniated tissue. Spinal fusion may also help to relieve back pain. Many types of back pain do not require more extreme types of surgical intervention, but in some cases they can offer tremendous pain relief.
- Chiropractic care: Chiropractic care has been proven to reduce healing times and relieve back pain with just one treatment. It also reduces medical costs and the chances of surgery when it is used as a first-line treatment for back pain.
- Opioids: For acute pain due to injury, opioids have been proven to be effective, but only in the short term. The detrimental effects of opioids for chronic pain far outweigh the benefits, but for some cases, it is a treatment option that should be discussed with a doctor.
- Complementary medicine: Acupuncture, biofeedback, and mindfulness meditation are three types of complementary medical approaches to back pain that have shown to have some success in pain relief. While they are not often as instantaneous as taking a pill, complementary medical approaches are safe and have very limited side effects.
You don’t have to live with the pain. There are many treatment options available.
Powerful myth #2: More men have back pain than women
More men than women in the U.S. tend to have blue-collar jobs that require heavy lifting and physical activity. So it stands to reason that men experience back pain at greater rates than women, right?
Myth buster: Men and women have back pain at roughly the same rates of back pain at all ages, across race and income
Back pain is one physical ailment that is truly equal opportunity. It doesn’t matter if you are male or female, black or white, rich or poor, approximately 80-90% of people will experience back pain in their lifetime. Rates of back pain within an age group tend to rise as that group gets older simply due to back pain conditions related to aging, such as osteoarthritis (considered a “wear and tear” condition). Back pain does not discriminate whether you are lifting babies at home or boxes in a warehouse, and it certainly doesn’t care if you are male or female.
Differences in the quality and quantity of care for back pain based on gender, race, and income certainly exist, but as far as incidence goes, back pain incidence affects everyone equally.
Powerful myth #3: Most back pain is caused by a traumatic injury (e.g., a car accident) or some other extreme physical cause (e.g., a sports injury)
It seems like people who participate in extreme sports (or even regular sports like professional baseball and golf) would have more back pain, or that most back pain is caused by serious injury due to car crashes or other accidents.
Myth buster: The vast majority of back pain is caused by misuse, overuse, or inadequate use
Of course professional athletes experience back pain, but there is a far greater incidence of back pain in “weekend warriors,” those who play an impromptu game of softball at the backyard barbecue or go on a golf outing once every month or so. Professional athletes are trained and conditioned and use their bodies on a regular basis. Some soreness or strain over time may be normal, but in general, their bodies are used to physical activity. Pain specialists see more back pain cases due to misuse (working the back incorrectly, like lifting boxes with the back instead of the legs) or overuse (especially when combined with inadequate use).
The best way to prevent these types of injuries is to stay strong and active on a regular basis. If you go from spending most of your day sitting at a desk and most of your night sitting on a couch to a full weekend of touch football, chances are good that your back will sustain some type of injury. Getting at least 150 minutes of exercise a week (and including some core strengthening) will help you maintain overall good health while protecting the health of your back.
Don’t underestimate the role of good posture in a healthy back either. Sitting hunched over a computer all day can eventually cause painful (and possibly permanent) damage to the cervical spine. Sit and stand well to prevent pain and injury.
These are just three of the powerful myths surrounding back pain. What other myths have you heard?
Image by Samantha Evans Photography via Flickr