“Oh, my aching back!” How many times have we heard someone say that, or said it ourselves? Back pain almost seems universal. Most everyone experiences it at some point. Is it a concern with our lifestyles, or is there something fundamentally wrong with our backs? Perhaps in learning the answer to this question, we can also learn a bit about how to minimize and avoid the back pain that seems inevitable but in most cases is not.
Why is Back Pain Such a Common Problem?
Back pain or backache is one of the most common ailments known to man. Why is that? Well, I believe it has everything to do with the fact that the back is such an essential and greatly used part of the body that is virtually involved with every aspect of daily living. Some have called the back the “workhorse” of the body, and for good reasons. It is no wonder that our backs are subject to pain, considering the amount and variety of use they get. The good news is that there are practical steps we can take to strengthen and protect our backs, and to prevent injuries and pain.
The human back is an amazing organ that is a very well designed combination of bones, muscles, nerves, and other tissues. But, as with any valuable asset, we have to take care of it so that it can continue to serve us well. Backs are very versatile and capable of helping our bodies’ function in many critical ways, but they are fragile too, and can be easily damaged through overwork and abuse. 80% of all American adults will experience back pain to varying degrees at some point in their lives. Back pain is the second most common reason for visits to the doctor, and time lost off work due to backaches is estimated to cost the American economy about $75 billion every year. Back injuries in the work place are a huge problem in the United States, and back problems are also one of the most common reasons that people file disability insurance claims.
What Are the Causes of Back Pain?
The causes of back pain are numerous and complex. Our backs, especially the lower back, bear the majority of the weight and stress of our bodies. The back can be easily injured both from the cumulative strain put on it day after day, and from sudden or jerky movements that catch it by surprise. Sometimes a back injury can occur because of a clearly identifiable cause, such as a trauma, but often the pain appears for no reason that is apparent. In general, back pain is categorized into several types:
- Localized: This is pain that is specific to a certain area of the back, and does not spread beyond that particular area.
- Diffuse: This is pain over a larger area, and is usually found in the deeper tissue layers of the back.
- Radicular: This type generally follows the path of a nerve or nerves, and is caused by irritation to the nerve(s).
- Referred: This pain is felt in the back, but is actually caused by a problem in another part of the body such as the abdomen or kidneys.
- Back pain is also classified as acute or chronic. Acute pain is attributable to a specific incident, while chronic back pain is an ongoing problem, often of unknown origin. Chronic back pain is thought to sometimes be a function of a change in nerve response to repeated pain in the back. In other words, multiple acute incidents can eventually lead to chronic pain, which can be very difficult to treat and resolve.
Common conditions that can cause back pain
- Herniated disk: When the soft tissue between the vertebrae of the spine (disk) becomes dislodged, it often will put pressure against the spinal nerves and cause pain in the back and other places of the body.
- Sciatica: This type of radicular back pain occurs when a ruptured or herniated disk is pressed against the sciatic nerve, one of the major nerves of the body. Pain is usually experienced in the lower back, as well as the buttocks and the back of the leg (referred pain).
- Spinal stenosis is a form of arthritis that affects the spinal canal and the nerve roots within it. The canal is narrowed by the arthritis and abnormal bone growth, and the nerves can experience pressure and produce pain.
- Spondylolisthesis is a condition whereby one vertebra “slips” on top of another, resulting in pressure on the spinal nerves and accompanying pain.
- Spondylosis: This is also a type of spinal arthritis that is often associated with aging.
- Constipation: Believe it or not but a lot of back pain is caused by constipation. Making sure that you are experiencing at least 2-3 daily bowel movements will alleviate some types of back pain.
- Excess Weight: Excess weight can pull the spine out of alignment causing lower back pain.
Most back pain is either caused by an incident that strains the muscles, such as improper lifting, a trauma such as a blow to the back or an automobile accident, or the most common conditions listed above. However, there are more rare causes of back pain that you should be aware of that are often much more serious as well:
- Malignancies: Back pain can sometimes be an indicator of a tumor of the spine or a cancer in another part of the body such as the breast, prostate, or lungs that has spread to the spinal area. One of the more dangerous cancers that can produce back pain is called caudia equina syndrome.This involves a very serious neurological condition that impacts the nerves that control the legs and the groin area, including bowel and bladder functions.
- Spinal infections: The spinal area can become infected due to a variety of factors such as surgery or a weak or compromised immune system. Back pain accompanied by a fever and tender warm spots on the back could be an indicator of this potentially serious condition. Other signs of a spinal infection may include fever, chills, stiff neck, and numbness or tingling in the extremities.
- Mechanical problems: Back pain can also at times indicate a problem with the structure of the back, either due to a birth defect or a trauma/injury later in life. Either one can cause the back to grow improperly or change the way it relates to other structures of the body, and thus produce pain.
How Can Back Pain be Treated?
There are so many different causes for back pain, so it comes as no surprise that there is a corresponding number of treatments available ranging from noninvasive therapies to a myriad of drugs and surgeries. It’s best to begin with a conservative, common sense approach when it comes to dealing with back pain. And be very careful before submitting to back surgery. Back surgery has a notorious reputation for a very poor success rate. Beyond that, once you have the first one, and the pain is not resolved, it is usually recommended that you have additional surgeries to “solve” the concern. This can lead to even worse back pain, because one of the ways that chronic back pain manifests itself is through repeated back trauma including surgery. Chronic back pain can be a very difficult issue to treat. Also, be careful when you are consulting with a physician regarding back pain. Do not allow yourself to be subjected to excessive or unnecessary imaging studies such as CT scans, which can expose you to about five times the radiation of an ordinary x-ray.
Most common, garden-variety back pain can be self-treated at home, and will resolve itself in short order. Here are some tips:
- Try a regimen of daily stretching exercises that work the muscles of the back, which can both prevent back pain, and help to heal the pain of a current backache. The YMCA has an excellent resource called “The YMCA Healthy Back Program.” Many Y’s around the country offer classes related to this program, or there are books available for doing it yourself at home. The regimen will strengthen your back muscles and thus prevent many injuries. Exercises are also suggested that will help a sore back heal. If the Y doesn’t work for you, there are lots of other resources available on line as well.
- Alternate cold and hot packs, leaving them on for no longer than 20 minutes at a time. Start with an ice pack wrapped in a cloth to prevent freezer burns on your skin. Stick with the cold pack for the first few hours after an injury. After the acute pain has been stabilized, you may alternate hot and cold as you desire—whatever feels like it’s helping the most.
- Resting is important too. Take it easy for a couple of days if you can, but don’t overdo the bed rest. Too much for too long can actually make matters worse by tightening up muscles that need to be gently stretched.
- Constipation: If you are not experiencing at least 2-3 daily bowel movements then you are constipated. Constipation causes more back pain than most practitioners will admit. Performing 3-4 digestive tract cleanses with ten days off between each cleanse will help to alleviate constipation in most people. After cleansing, a maintenance program is advised using an oxygen-based digestive tract cleanser .
- We all know that proper lifting is important to avoid back injuries, but we often overlook other activities such as sitting and sleeping. The best thinking is that a medium-firm mattress is the optimum choice for most people when it comes to back health—not too hard, and not too soft. As far as sitting goes, get in the habit of sitting up straight and use a chair that gives good back support, especially if you do a lot of sitting, such as at a desk all day. You may actually experience pain at first when you consciously try to sit properly, but once your back is trained the pain will go away.
- A back brace or back belt can go a long way towards helping with your back pain. They are great to wear for extra support while healing from an injury or to prevent back damage. If you do a lot of heavy lifting on a regular basis, they are a must.
- Many people have found that chiropractic care is a great way to heal from back pain and keep their backs healthy and aligned. There are quite a few different schools of chiropractory, so do your homework and find a practitioner that fits your philosophy and suits your particular needs.
- A good massage is also helpful to many people who suffer from back pain. As with chiropractory, there are many different types of massage available. You also have the option of learning massage techniques yourself. Some individuals practice self-massage to help their backs, or you and your loved ones can massage each other and have a happy family of pain-free, relaxed backs.
- Weight Loss: Carrying around excess weight, especially around the abdomen area, can contribute to back pain. Many people are suprised that their back pain goes away after losing just ten to fifteen pounds.
- Enzymes: Certain enzymes such as serrapeptase along with other systemic enzymes can help with inflammation.
- Healthy oils: Eliminating hydrogenated oils from pre-packaged and fast foods will also help with inflammation. Using oils such as organic coconut, hempseed and flax seed oils have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body.
- Exercise: Walking for 30 to 45 minutes every day helps many people with back pain. Using an inversion table will help to keep the spine stretched. A Chi Machine is also helpful for oxygenation of the spine. Beginning at the lowest setting is advised.
- FIR – Far Infra Red heat directed toward the painful area of the back can help to relieve muscle spasms and pain. Make sure that you read directions and educate yourself before using FIR.
- TENS Unit – TENS stands for Transcutaneous Electrical Neural (Nerve) Stimulation. TENS units are usually a pocket size, portable, battery-operated device that sends electrical impulses to certain parts of the body to block pain signals. The electrical currents produced are mild, but can prevent pain messages from being transmitted to the brain and may raise the level of endorphins (natural pain killers produced by the brain). It is highly suggested to be under the care of a knowledgeable healthcare professional while using a TENS Unit.
Loretta Lanphier, NP, CN, HHP, CH is a Naturopathic Practitioner, Clinical Nutritionist, Holistic Health Practitioner and Clinical Herbalist in Houston, TX and Founder / CEO of Oasis Advanced Wellness. Under her leadership, Oasis Advanced Wellness is known and respected as one of the leading companies in providing safe, non-toxic, hi-tech natural health and wellness solutions along with cutting-edge health programs. Lanphier is the author of five health and wellness e-books including Optimum Health Strategies…Doing What Works. Lanphier is Editor and contributor to the worldwide Free E-newsletter Advanced Health & Wellness