Back pain is like the common cold—nearly all of us have to deal with it at some point. In fact, eight out of 10 people will feel that ominous twinge at least once in their lives. The good news is that most backaches will go away with minimal treatment. This type of pain is typically called acute, meaning it comes on suddenly and lasts no more than a few weeks. When that happens, over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) and topical analgesics should provide relief.
“If your pain lasts more than 12 weeks, your doctor might categorize it as chronic,” says Michael Flippin, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon and a member of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Flippin shares how to cope with chronic back pain, and when to seek help.
How do I know whether my back pain is serious?
"If you have persistent pain that gradually becomes worse, numbness, weakness, loss of bladder or bowel function, or unexplained weight loss, see a doctor immediately," Flippin says. "The large majority of chronic back pain is due to arthritis, but it's always good to make sure it's not due to anything else."
What should I avoid?
Don't take to your bed, and don't ignore the problem. "I encourage people to pay attention to warning signs and what hurts. Don't assume it's just your back and nothing else." A herniated disk, for example, can result in leg pain as well as back pain. Dealing with chronic pain also takes a toll on your physical and emotional health, so it's crucial that your treatment plan addresses both.
What can I do about it?
When it comes to chronic back pain, Flippin suggests a three-pronged approach. First, it's important to keep moving and continue living, he says. Next, learn how to adapt. "Address the things you can, such as weight loss or making your work area more ergonomically correct."
Lastly, to truly conquer back pain, you should maintain a low-impact exercise routine and strengthen your core. "This gives our bodies the tools we need to take the stress off our backs," he says. And talk to your doctor about treatments that can help you move past the pain.
"People with chronic back pain tend to have good days and bad. Your doctor should be able to help get you through the bad days," Flippin says. "Treatment options include everything from pain medication to physical therapy to injections to nerve ablation."
Learn more about possible causes of back pain and tips and treatment that can offer relief.