The Free Press, Mankato, MN

November 16, 2012

Speaking of Health: Back Pain: Is it inevitable?

Douglas Chyatte, M.D
Mayo Clinic Health System

— When back pain strikes, many people complain that they’re just getting old – and they’re not completely wrong. Most back problems are associated with degeneration of the spine, which comes with the natural process of aging. But rest assured, back pain can be avoided.

By taking proactive measures, you can properly treat and prevent back pain – or at least lessen its frequency and severity – while improving the overall health of your spine.

1. Maintain a healthy weight. Your spine bears the majority of your body’s weight. If you are overweight, the additional strain on your spine and its supporting muscles causes your spine to wear out more quickly. As a result, obese individuals are much more likely to experience back pain and at an earlier age.

2. Low-impact exercise. Regular low-impact exercise, such as walking, bicycling, yoga, Pilates and swimming, strengthens your back and increases flexibility. High-impact exercise that involves repetitive starting and stopping can strain and jolt your back, resulting in more wear and tear on your spine. 

3. Stand smart. Sit smart. Lift smart. Using proper body mechanics promotes a healthy spine. Practical, easy tips to improve posture and reduce the amount of stress on the back muscles include:

4. You can treat back pain at home – sometimes. Most back pain doesn’t require a visit to a health care provider and will improve with treatment at home. Restricting activities to avoid over-exertion will help your spine heal, while over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen supply pain relief. Muscle spasms may trigger back pain, so relaxing those muscles through heat or massage can decrease the pain as well.  

5. Seek professional help when necessary. Although most back pain can be successfully treated at home, there are certain times when you should seek medical help. If the pain is constant or intense and hasn’t been relieved after several weeks of home treatment, you should see your health care provider.

Other red flags that should trigger a trip to the doctor include weakness, pain or numbness in the feet or legs, or incontinence. Those symptoms may indicate the presence of a condition that a health care provider should evaluate. You should also seek medical help if you’ve had a history of trauma to your spine, such as experiencing back pain immediately after a car accident.

You should also seek medical help if you have back pain in an unusual context, with other symptoms that may suggest a more serious, systemic illness. For example, back pain that develops after a prolonged fever or accompanies unexplained weight loss should be investigated by a health care provider.

6. Surgery is rarely needed. There are times when back surgery is appropriate, including major trauma or an acute neurologic problem. However, most people who have back pain due to degenerative causes find that medical therapy – rather than surgery – best meets their needs.

Back pain can affect every area of your life, from sleepless nights to missed days at work. Follow these tips to strengthen and protect your spine, and always ask your health care provider if you have any questions or concerns.

Douglas Chyatte, M.D., is a Mayo Clinic Health System neurosurgeon. He will offer a free public presentation on back pain in the lower level conference center of Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato on Nov. 19 at 7 p.m.

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Health & Fitness coverage is supported by Mayo Clinic Health System, preserving the health and well-being of southern Minnesota communities.