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Get a Handle on Your Lower Back Pain

About 80 percent of adults will experience lower back pain at some point. Here’s how to find relief.


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Photo courtesy of istockphoto.com // baona
 

Pregnancy was hard enough on your back with baby weight, loosening ligaments and a new center of gravity. But everyday life is no picnic either. “Lifting kids and laundry baskets, hunching over your cell phone and sitting too much may all contribute to an aching back,” says Lauren Barlog, MD, assistant professor at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark. “That may be especially true if your core is weak or you’re carrying a few extra pounds.” Here’s how to handle this all too common complaint.

COPING WITH THE PAIN

If you haven’t experienced lower back pain, you’re actually in the minority. “Back pain is one of the most common reasons we see primary care doctors,” says Jay Khanna, MD, professor of orthopaedic surgery at Johns Hopkins University and spokesperson for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. “The good news is that about 90 percent of typical low back pain gets better on its own within six to 12 weeks.”

When you’re hurting, cut out strenuous activities; but resist the urge to curl up in bed all day, as that may make the pain worse. It’s fine to take over-the-counter pain meds such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen if you’re not pregnant. Or, apply a hot or cold pack (whichever feels better—talk with your doctor about what’s best for you). Some people feel more comfortable when wearing a back brace. Sleeping on your side with a pillow between your thighs may relieve discomfort, as well, says Barlog.

If your back pain gets worse or doesn’t improve after a few days of home treatment, see your doctor. He or she may recommend physical therapy or a steroid injection to reduce inflammation, says Khanna. Imaging tests such as X-rays may be recommended, as well. You may also want to consider chiropractic care. “A doctor of chiropractic will take a full history, assess your back pain, order diagnostic tests if necessary and suggest a treatment plan,” says Steve Clarke, DC, president of the Association of New Jersey Chiropractors. “We can work hand-in-hand with physical therapists, pain management  specialists, primary care [physicians] and surgeons to improve a patient’s quality of life.”

However, there are certain red flags that mean you shouldn’t seek chiropractic care: osteoporosis, numbness or tingling in an arm or leg, a history of cancer, incontinence or severe pain that isn’t alleviated in any position, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Discuss concerns with your doctor if you’re considering chiropractic care.

PREVENTING FUTURE EPISODES

Don’t just hope for the best; lose some weight, improve your strength and stretch. “Exercises such as yoga, Pilates and swimming can help strengthen your core to provide better support for your back,” says  Khanna. Be vigilant about protecting your back when lifting, whether it’s your kid or a bag of groceries. The right way to lift something heavy? Get close to what you’re picking up, bend your knees, tighten your abs and lift with your legs, not your back.

If you’re at a desk all day, stretch frequently. “Watch your posture when sitting,” says Barlog. “Keep your feet flat on the floor and push your pelvis toward the back of the chair so you’re not slouching.” Set a timer or write a sticky note to remind yourself to take breaks.

WHEN IT’S AN EMERGENCY

Most cases of lower back pain don’t require surgery, says Khanna. But if you have sharp one-sided back pain, pain accompanied by fever or chills, leg weakness, difficulty walking or bowel or bladder dysfunction, you should call your doctor right away.

Arricca Elin SanSone is a New York-based health and lifestyle writer.

 

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