"Ow, my aching back!”
So you overdid it, playing with your kids. Or you lugged a heavy object up the stairs, or you tried a new machine at the gym. The next day, your lower back hurts so much, you don’t even think you can get out of bed.
About 80% of people experience back pain at some point during their lives. Back pain is an equal opportunity afflicter, striking both men and women. The good news is that most back pain is temporary, lasting just a few days (even if those few days are agonizing).
There are many different causes of back pain, and many different types of back pain. We’re going to go over some of the basics, including what to do when it strikes and how you can hopefully prevent it from coming back.
Causes of Back Pain
Most low back pain is caused when the structures of your back (the bony parts of the spine, the muscles that protect it, the discs, and the nerves that flow through them) aren’t working together correctly. During our daily routines, we often ask weak muscles to work harder than they should. This can result in sprains or strains, which can cause painful back spasms.
Another common cause of back pain comes from your intervertebral discs. These are the jelly-like ‘shock absorbers’ that fit between your vertebra. As we age, these discs become dried out and degenerate, so they don’t provide the cushioning they once did. These discs can also rupture or bulge, which also causes pain.
Less frequently, back pain is caused by compression of the nerves that enter and exit your spine. Back pain can also be caused by abnormalities of the spine or degenerative changes to the spinal column.
When You Should See a Doctor
No two cases of back pain are the same. When your back pain is caused from the strain of “overdoing it,” you may have pain that lasts a few days or even weeks, then goes away on its own or with a little help from a heating pad, rest, and some Tylenol. If your back pain lasts for longer than six weeks, you should see the doctor.
In some cases, back pain can be very serious, or the sign of a serious condition. Here’s when you should seek out a doctor or go to the emergency room immediately:
- Severe back pain after trauma such as a fall down the stairs or a car accident
- When you have sudden back pain, and also loss of control of your bladder and bowels
Other cases aren’t so serious that they need emergency care, but you should see your regular doctor as soon as possible if you experience back pain accompanied by:
- Numbness and tingling
- Night pain
- Foot drop (when you suddenly can’t pick your foot or toes off the ground)
If you’re not sure of whether or not to see a doctor, call AltaMed’s Nurse Advice Line at (866) 266-5092 to speak with a registered nurse who will ask questions and give you advice on your next steps.
Proactive Steps to Prevent Back Pain
Once you’re back to normal, consider taking steps to protect your back and prevent another episode of back pain. You may not be able to do anything about the aging process, but there are plenty of other steps you can take to build a healthy back.
Maintain a Healthful Weight
To put it in very simple terms, the less weight your back has to support, the better it works. If you’re overweight, talk to your doctor about lifestyle changes that you can make to achieve a goal weight.
Learn How to Move
Your doctor may give you a home exercise program or prescribe physical therapy to help strengthen and stretch your muscles. Don’t worry, you won’t have to do endless sit-ups or work up a sweat: most of the time, physical therapy emphasizes gentle stretches and simple moves that strengthen the muscles in your back, abdomen, and legs.
Eat a Healthy Diet
- Spices such as ginger, turmeric, and cayenne fight pain-causing inflammation in your body. In a way, the effects are similar to taking aspirin or ibuprofen, but they happen over time, not immediately.
- On the other hand, sugar, too much alcohol, and the processed carbohydrates found in foods like bread, pastries, and cereals promote inflammation. Cutting back on these foods could have a positive, long-term effect on you back.
- Healthy fats from nuts, fish, and avocados will support pain-free movement of your joints.
You don’t have to do it all at once. Make little changes and watch them all add up. Your back (and the rest of your body) will thank you!