Back pain is one of the most common reasons people go to the doctor or miss work and a leading cause of disability worldwide. Most people have back pain at least once.
Fortunately, you can take measures to prevent or relieve most back pain episodes. If prevention fails, simple home treatment and proper body mechanics often will heal your back within a few weeks and keep it functional for the long haul. Surgery is rarely needed to treat back pain.
Signs and symptoms of back pain may include:
Shooting or stabbing pain
Pain that radiates down your leg
Limited flexibility or range of motion of the back
When to see a doctor
Most back pain gradually improves with home treatment and self-care, usually within two weeks. If not, see your doctor.
Contact a doctor if your back pain:
Is severe and doesn’t improve with rest
Spreads down one or both legs, especially if the pain extends below the knee
Causes weakness, numbness or tingling in one or both legs
Is accompanied by unexplained weight loss
Also, see your doctor if you start having back pain for the first time after age 50, or if you have a history of cancer, osteoporosis, steroid use, or drug or alcohol abuse.
Anyone can develop back pain, even children and teens. Research has yet to prove what contributes to back pain. However, these factors might put you at greater risk of developing back pain:
Age. Back pain is more common as you get older, starting around age 30 or 40.
Lack of exercise. Weak, unused muscles in your back might lead to back pain.
Excess weight. Carrying too much weight puts extra stress on your back.
Diseases. Some types of arthritis and cancer can contribute to back pain.
Improper lifting. Using your back instead of your legs can lead to back pain.
Psychological conditions. People prone to depression and anxiety appear to have a greater risk of back pain.
Smoking. This can keep your body from delivering enough nutrients to the disks in your back.
Treatments and drugs
Most acute back pain gets better with a few weeks of home treatment. Over-the-counter pain relievers and the use of heat or ice might be all you need. Bed rest isn’t recommended.
Continue your activities as much as you can tolerate. Try light activity, such as walking and activities of daily living. Stop activity that increases pain, but don’t avoid activity out of fear of pain. If home treatments aren’t working after several weeks, your doctor might suggest stronger medications or other therapies.
Depending on the type of back pain you have, your doctor might recommend the following:
Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) or naproxen sodium (Aleve), might relieve acute back pain. Take these medications as directed by your doctor, because overuse can cause serious side effects.If OTC pain relievers don’t relieve your pain, your doctor might suggest prescription NSAIDs.
If mild to moderate back pain doesn’t improve with OTC pain relievers, your doctor may also prescribe a muscle relaxant. Muscle relaxants can make you dizzy and sleepy.
Topical pain relievers. These are creams, salves or ointments you rub into your skin at the site of your pain.
Certain drugs, such as codeine or hydrocodone, may be used for a short time with close supervision by your doctor.
Low doses of certain types of antidepressants — particularly tricyclic antidepressants, such as amitriptyline — have been shown to relieve some types of chronic back pain, independent of their effect on depression.
If other measures don’t relieve your pain and if your pain radiates down your leg, your doctor may inject cortisone — an anti-inflammatory medication — or numbing medication into the space around your spinal cord (epidural space). A cortisone injection helps decrease inflammation around the nerve roots, but the pain relief usually lasts less than a few months.
There’s no commonly accepted program to teach people with back pain how to manage the condition effectively. So education might involve a class, a talk with your doctor, written material or a video. Education emphasizes the importance of staying active, reducing stress and worry, and teaching ways to avoid future injury.
Physical therapy and exercise
Physical therapy is the cornerstone of back pain treatment. A physical therapist can apply a variety of treatments, such as heat, ultrasound, electrical stimulation and muscle-release techniques, to your back muscles and soft tissues to reduce pain.
As pain improves, the therapist can teach you exercises that can increase your flexibility, strengthen your back and abdominal muscles, and improve your posture. Regular use of these techniques can help prevent pain from returning.
Few people need surgery for back pain. If you have unrelenting pain associated with radiating leg pain or progressive muscle weakness caused by nerve compression, you may benefit from surgery. Otherwise, surgery usually is reserved for pain related to structural problems, such as narrowing of the spine (spinal stenosis) or a herniated disk, that hasn’t responded to other therapy.
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