According to the American Chiropractic Association, one-half of all working Americans admit to having symptoms of back pain each year. It’s the second most common reason for visits to the doctor’s office (second only to respiratory infections), and costs Americans $50 billion annually.
Fortunately, most cases of back pain are not caused by serious conditions like fractures or arthritis or infections. You’ve probably experienced the sharp, piercing pain of “throwing out” your back, perhaps followed by that sense that you better not move—not even an inch! What is it, exactly, that happens, and what’s the best thing to do about it?
What Happens When You “Throw Out” Your Back
Most of the time, when this happens, you’re not actually “throwing out” anything. There are no bones or discs moving from their regular position, so there’s nothing to “get back in.” Instead, what you’re experiencing is an injury to a muscle or ligament—much like a sprained ankle. More rarely, it can be a ruptured disc—a condition in which the spongy disc between the vertebrae of the spine suffers a tear, and the gel-like fluid inside may leak out. Even in this situation, the pain most often goes away within 4-6 weeks.
More rare cases involve tumors or infections, but this makes up less than one percent of back problems. The majority of the time, the muscles and tissues are reacting to a certain movement. Usually it happens when you bend over, or go to lift something. Even more often, you’ve been sitting for a long time, you’ve failed to exercise regularly, you’ve overused your back muscles recently, or you engaged in some activity you weren’t used to, so your back muscles were stiff to begin with, and more likely to become injured.
The bad news is that once you’ve injured those tissues, you’re going to have a scar there, which will harden and stiffen and make it more likely that you’ll injure the area again. That’s why many people “throw out” their backs in the same place several times, or believe they have a “bad back.”
What to Do When it Happens?
In those first few painful moments, you may feel like panicking. After all, you can’t move! Just take a deep breath and realize that you’re most likely not in any serious danger.
- Rest for a moment. You’re not going to want to move. That’s okay. Just lie down however you can and rest, letting your muscles gradually relax.
- Get the ice. Injury=inflammation. An ice pack or bag of frozen veggies will tone down the swelling, and when you remove it, will increase blood flow in a way that helps the tissues heal. Go for 20 minutes at a time.
- Try herbs. Good ones to reduce inflammation include ginkgo, saw palmetto, rosemary, and bromelain. Good ones for relaxing muscles include chamomile, angelica, black haw, cramp bark, and celery seed.
- Stay hydrated. Water helps hydrate your disks and flushes toxins from the injury out of your system.
- Slowly start to move again as you can. Try bringing your knees into your chest to gently stretch out the injured area.
- Continue to take it easy for the first twenty-four hours. You should start to feel some easing of the pain now, and some renewed ability to move. If you feel sharp pain down your leg, or have bowel problems, get to your doctor as soon as you can.
- The next day, start alternating ice with heat (20 minutes at a time) to increase blood flow and return flexibility to your muscles.
- Start increasing your movements. (Bed rest is not typically recommended.) Perform regular gentle stretches, such as pulling the knees into the chest and bending forward from the waist while keeping the legs relatively straight. See Annmarie’s stretches for back pain here. Let your body tell you how much it can tolerate, and move slowly and easily, gradually increasing your range of motion.
If you’re still unable to move much after 48 hours, do check with your doctor. In most cases, however, the combination of steps listed above will bring you gradual relief. After the first 48 hours, continue to gradually increase your movements, but give yourself 2–4 weeks to fully recover.
Prevent It in the First Place
The best way to protect your back is to take the steps that will prevent injury in the first place. This can be difficult in our modern world, where so many of us are stuck in cubicles or offices or vehicles for much of the day. Try these tips, and let us know if you have more:
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Exercise regularly
- Warm up or stretch before exercise, and before other activities like gardening or cleaning
- Wear comfortable, low-heeled shoes
- Always use your knees when lifting, and keep your back straight
- Drink plenty of water
- Get a supportive mattress
- Ease in and out of your car, and make frequent stops to get out and walk on long drives; you can also adjust your seat several times along the way to prevent your spine from being locked in one position
- Perform back strengthening stretches and exercises at least 2-3 times a week
- Work on your core abdominal muscles—Pilates is great for this—as strong core muscles protect and support your back
- Try not to slouch when sitting or standing—stand tall with your head up and shoulders back
- Make sure you’re getting enough calcium and vitamin D each day
- If you work in an office, get up for at least 10 minutes every hour, walk around, and stretch; also try to make your office as back-friendly as possible with a good chair and comfortable keyboard position
- Try yoga or tai chi, particularly if you carry your stress in your back or your shoulders
Have you thrown out your back? What did you do?
* * *
Photo courtesy eddie gittins via Flickr.com.
“Back Pain Facts & Statistics,” American Chiropractic Association, http://www.acatoday.org/level2_css.cfm?T1ID=13&T2ID=68.