If you’re suffering from back pain, you are not alone. And you don’t have to continue to suffer or go through a complicated surgery.
Back pain is one of the most common health problems in the country. Lower back pain is the most common cause of job-related disability and a leading contributor to missed work days. Lower back pain occurs at least once in an estimated 75 to 85 percent of adults, according to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons.
Back pain can have a serious impact on your life, interfering with your day-to-day activities and your sleep. But maybe you don’t want surgery. You might be wondering: What treatment options do I have? And are they effective?
At National Pain Institute, we understand pain. Our experts have successfully treated many people for back pain. We know each situation and each person is unique.
Our focus is on treating pain without surgery — and without the use of addictive painkillers as a first option.
We’ll give you an overview of some strategies we might use for treating lower back pain without surgery. But, first, let’s talk about back pain.
Back pain can be painful and debilitating.
Back pain, which can range from a dull, constant ache to a sudden, sharp sensation that leaves the person unable to move, can begin abruptly as a result of an accident or by lifting something heavy. Or it can develop over time due to changes in the spine as we age. A sedentary lifestyle can also lead to low back pain.
The magnitude of this issue is only growing. In 1990, a study ranked the most burdensome conditions in the United States in terms of mortality or poor health as a result of disease and put low back pain in sixth place. Twenty years later, low back pain jumped to third place.
Most back pain is mechanical in nature, meaning it is caused by placing stress and tension on the muscles of the backbone. In the back, there are many possible pain producers including muscles, soft connective tissue, ligaments, joint capsules and cartilage, and blood vessels.
Risk factors for developing lower back pain:
- Age. The first attack usually begins between the ages of 30 and 50. Then, back pain becomes more common with age.
- Fitness level. As you might expect, back pain is more common in people who are not physically fit. Weak back and abdominal muscles might not be able to properly support the spine. Also, people who only exercise on the weekend after being inactive all week are more likely to suffer painful back injuries.
- Pregnancy. Low back pain is often felt by pregnant women, but it usually resolves itself once the baby is born.
- Weight gain. If you are overweight, obese, or quickly gaining weight, the weight can put stress on the back and lead to low back pain.
- Genetics. Some causes of back pain, such as ankylosing spondylitis (a form of arthritis), can lead to injury and back pain.
- Occupational risk factors. Jobs that require heavy lifting, pushing, or pulling can lead to injury and back pain. An inactive desk job may also lead to lower back pain, especially if you have poor posture.
- Mental health factors. Some pre-existing mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, can influence how closely a person focuses on their pain. Stress, if not managed properly, can cause muscle tension.
- Backpack overload in children. Yes, a child’s backpack can be too heavy, causing back strain and muscle fatigue. The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons recommends that a child’s backpack should weigh no more than 15 to 20 percent of a child’s body weight.
Key Takeaway: Lower back pain is a serious and growing problem that affects most adults in America.
Treating back pain
Treatment for lower back pain depends on whether the pain is acute (short term) or chronic (lasting). There is a standard of care for lower back pain, but because this is a multifaceted condition with physical, psychological, genetic, social, and general health components, all back pain cannot be treated the same.
Here are some conservative pain treatments that may help you:
- Hot or cold packs. This treatment most likely won’t quickly resolve your low back injury. But local application of heat and ice may help ease the pain, facilitate stretching, and reduce inflammation, allowing for greater mobility for some people. Start with ice packs when the pain starts and then after 48 hours, switch to heat.
- Exercise. Although it might seem counterintuitive, you should continue to perform everyday activities and remain active as much as you can tolerate. Studies show that people who remain active and don’t confine themselves to their beds have less pain. Activity keeps blood and nutrients flowing to the affected area. Many sufferers of low back pain feel better after walking. However, more vigorous activities or contact sports are inadvisable while pain is severe. Consumer Reports reported that 58 percent of people with back pain wished they had done more back strengthening exercises.
- Physical therapy. Physical therapy techniques, such as ultrasound, electrical stimulation, traction, mobilization, and chiropractic manipulation can provide temporary relief. Physical therapists can provide education and advice regarding strategies for restoring motion, resuming activities, and preventing de-conditioning. A study published in Spine showed that early treatment by a physical therapist is effective.
- Back injections. Spinal injections are typically used for persistent or recurrent low back pain (and occasionally acute pain) following a comprehensive medical evaluation. We have several injections that may be able to provide you with relief, including acupuncture injection therapy, epidural injections, nerve block injections, sacroiliac joint injections, cortisone injections, trigger point injections, and lumbar epidural steroid injections. These injections can take the pain away, in some cases for a long period of time; possibly even permanently.
- Spinal cord stimulation. This minimally invasive treatment has been found to be effective for chronic lower back pain. Spinal cord stimulation can be successful for people who have not found pain relief through other methods. After a trial to ensure it works, soft, thin wires with electrical leads on the tips will be placed through a needle near the spinal column. Two small incisions will be made, and an electrical current will be applied to the source of the pain, blocking the brain’s ability to sense pain. According to the American Academy of Pain Medicine, spinal cord stimulation can relieve low back pain.
- Acupuncture. Some patients find that acupuncture is extremely helpful in minimizing their back pain.
- Tai Chi. Tai chi is an ancient Chinese system of meditative movements practiced as exercises. This gentle form of exercise is an effective treatment for low back pain. Each specific flowing movement corresponds with the inhalation or the exhalation of a deep, gentle breath. The coordination of movement and breath is said to free the flow of chi, a life-force energy that, when blocked, can cause stress and illness. According to research published in Arthritis Care & Research, tai chi is able to ease low back pain.
At our pain care clinics we also teach our patients other lifestyle management techniques for pain, such as pain psychology, nutritional counseling, and physical conditioning. This way you can treat your own pain through your healthier lifestyle.
Key Takeaway: While no standard of care exists for treating low back pain, a variety of conservative, multidisciplinary treatments can help people find relief.
Why we don’t recommend pain medications in most cases
At our National Pain Institute pain relief clinics, we don’t prescribe pain medications unless we have to. Pain medications can actually make you and your pain worse.
Many narcotics are addictive, causing health issues down the line. Pain medications, when taken over a long period of time, can increase a person’s sensitivity to pain, making it difficult for the person to find relief from pain.
Also, pain may be a manifestation of an underlying emotional issue, so treating the pain with drugs won’t fix the root problem.
Key Takeaway: Taking powerful pain medications for pain relief is not a good first course of action. These drugs might be addictive and cause further health concerns.
When is it time to see a doctor for your back pain?
Most lower back pain is acute and lasts only a few days or weeks. If you practice self care, it usually resolves on its own without a loss of function. Fifty percent of episodes almost completely resolve within two weeks and 80 percent by six weeks.
If you have back pain that persists longer than four to six weeks or you have recurrent pain, you should seek the assistance of pain experts. Or if low back pain occurs after a recent injury — such as a car accident, a fall, or sports injury — you should call a doctor immediately.
With proper diagnosis and early treatment, you can prevent your pain from becoming chronic. When in our care, our doctors will conduct a full examination and rule out dangerous conditions like infections or cancer.
About 20 percent of people with acute lower back pain develop chronic back pain, with persistent symptoms lasting a year or more. But this does not have to be you.
Key Takeaway: Most lower back pain goes away in two months with self care. But if you have pain longer than this, or you suffer from pain after an injury, you should seek professional help.
National Pain Institute can help treat your lower back pain without surgery
At National Pain Institute, we educate our patients about the favorable history of low back pain, the basic mechanics of the body, and methods to reduce symptoms.
Using a team approach, we develop a specialized treatment plan for each person who comes to one of our pain care centers.
According to research, a balanced approach, which takes into account patient psychosocial factors and incorporates multidisciplinary care, increases the likelihood of success from back pain interventions.
If you come to us when your lower back pain is acute, you will most likely be able to return to normal activity within the first month.