You know slouching isn’t good for your back — but can sitting up straight cause problems, too? We get to the truth about back pain…
It might be a sharp stab. It might be a dull ache. Sooner or later, eight out of 10 of us will have back pain. Back pain is common — and so are back pain myths. See if you can tell the myths from the facts.
Myth: Always Sit Up Straight
Okay, slouching is bad for your back. But sitting up too straight and still for long periods can also be a strain on the back. If you sit a lot, try this a few times a day: Lean back in your chair with your feet on the floor and a slight curve in your back. Even better: Try standing for part of the day, while on the phone or while reading work materials.
Myth: Don’t Lift Heavy Objects
It’s not necessarily how much you lift, it’s how you lift. Of course you shouldn’t lift anything that might be too heavy for you. When you lift, squat close to the object with your back straight and head up. Stand, using your legs to lift the load. Do not twist or bend your body while lifting or you may hurt your back.
Myth: Bed Rest Is the Best Cure
Yes, resting can help an acute injury or strain that causes back pain. But it’s a myth that you should stay in bed. A day or two in bed can make your back pain worse.
Myth: Pain Is Caused by Injury
Disc degeneration, injuries, diseases, infections, and even inherited conditions can cause back pain.
Fact: More Pounds, More Pain
Staying fit helps prevent back pain. Back pain is most common among people who are out of shape, especially weekend warriors who engage in vigorous activity after sitting around all week. And as you might guess, obesity stresses the back.
Myth: Skinny Means Pain-Free
Anyone can get back pain. In fact, people who are too thin, such as those suffering from anorexia, an eating disorder, may suffer bone loss resulting in fractured or crushed vertebrae.
Myth: Exercise Is Bad for Back Pain
A big myth. Regular exercise prevents back pain. And for people suffering an acute injury resulting in lower back pain, doctors may recommend an exercise program that begins with gentle exercises and gradually increases in intensity. Once the acute pain subsides, an exercise regimen may help prevent future recurrence of back pain.
Fact: Chiropractic Care Can Help
The American College of Physicians and American Pain Society guidelines for treatment of lower back pain recommend that patients and doctors consider other options with proven benefits, such as spinal manipulation or massage therapy.
Fact: Acupuncture May Ease Pain
According to guidelines from the American College of Physicians and the American Pain Society, patients and their doctors should consider acupuncture among treatments for back pain patients who do not get relief from standard self care. Yoga, progressive relaxation, and cognitive-behavioral therapy are also suggested for consideration.
Myth: Firmer Mattresses Are Better
A Spanish study of people with longstanding, non-specific back pain showed that those who slept on a medium-firm mattress — rated 5.6 on a 10-point hard-to-soft scale — had less back pain and disability than those who slept on a firm mattress (2.3 on the scale) mattress. However, depending on their sleep habits and the cause of their back pain, different people may need different mattresses.
(Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH)
WHAT IS YOUR BACK PAIN TELLING YOU?
You may have heard that it’s our body’s way of sending us a message. But when back pain first arrives, what it tells you may not be the truth — or, at least, not the whole story.
Symptom: A brand-new pain
What you think: “I need tests to find out what’s going on”
The reality: You can feel better without seeing the doctor
Your next step: Try self-help tips.
Symptom: A sudden pain with a fairly ordinary movement
What you think: “Uh-oh. I shouldn’t have done that!”
The reality: You overdid it a few days ago. Stressed muscles only cried out with your latest quick movement
Your next step: Try self-help tips.
Symptom: It hurts to move
What you think: “I’d better stay still, or I’ll make it worse”
The reality: There’s no connection — in most cases, activity will hasten your recovery
Your next step: Start moving and stretching gently as soon as possible. Don’t stay in bed more than two days.
Symptom: It’s worst in early morning
What you think: “I must be sleeping in a weird position”
The reality: Back muscles tend to hurt more at day’s end and following activity, not after resting
Your next step: A check for inflammatory problems, such as arthritis, that cause morning pain and stiffness.
Symptom: A terrible pain
What you think: “This must be really serious!”
The reality: Even temporary problems like muscle sprains can hurt like crazy
Your next step: Tell your doctor about your pain, and also be sure to report symptoms like leg weakness.
The First 48 Hours: Self-Help Tips
You’ve thrown your back out — ! While the pain may be terrible, if you’re lucky, it will be short-lived. Here, simple relief measures to get you back on your feet:
Chill (Then Thaw)
Apply an ice pack (a bag of frozen peas works, too), over a thin shirt or towel, for up to 20 minutes. Or give yourself (or recruit the nearest set of helping hands for) a five-minute ice massage using water frozen in a paper cup with the sides peeled down. Repeat as often as you want, but no more than once an hour. (Ice is a natural pain reliever, and it reduces swelling by causing blood vessels in the area to constrict.) After 48 hours, you want blood flow to increase to help healing, so switch to heat.
Reach for the Meds
Or, if reaching is out of the question, dispatch someone to the medicine chest for an anti-inflammatory — aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), or naproxen (Aleve). These can be started right away (at the highest dose recommended on the label) to reduce pain and swelling. If you’re allergic to these painkillers or they upset your stomach, you can take acetaminophen (Tylenol), but it won’t reduce inflammation as effectively. Consult your doctor if you’re on other medications or if the OTC pills aren’t touching the pain. You may need different or stronger meds, or a muscle relaxant.