Dealing with back pain

In most cases, back pain is treatable with simple home remedies and by adopting better body mechanics.

Back pain – if you’ve ever experienced it, you know how debilitating it can be. Even simple activities such as walking, sitting or sleeping can cause acute discomfort.

Four out of five adults experience back pain at some point in their lives. In fact, back pain is one of the most common reasons for health care visits and missed work (second only to the common cold). A 2003 survey by Health Canada estimated that musculoskeletal disorders, including back pain, cost society a total of $16.4 billion in direct treatment and rehabilitation costs and lost productivity.

The good news is that in most cases, back pain can be eased with simple home remedies and by adopting better body mechanics. Surgery is rarely needed to treat back pain.

What causes back pain?
The lower back bears most of the body’s weight and stress. Back pain is most often caused by improper or heavy lifting or a sudden awkward movement.

These conditions can also cause back pain:
Herniated disk. This occurs when disk material presses on a nerve.
Sciatica. In this case, the herniated disk encroaches on the sciatic nerve causing sharp, shooting pain through the buttocks and back of the leg.
Spinal stenosis. The space around the spinal cord and nerve roots narrows due to arthritis and bone overgrowth. This can press or pinch a nerve.
Spondylosis. This is a type of arthritis affecting the spine. Back pain results from degenerative changes in the spine that occurs with aging.
Spondylolisthesis. One vertebra in the spinal column “slips” forward over another.

Rare but more serious causes of back pain include:
Cauda equina syndrome. A serious neurological problem causing weakness in the legs, numbness in the groin area and loss of bowel or bladder control.
Cancer in the spine. A tumor on the spine presses on a nerve causing back pain.
Infection of the spine. If a fever and a tender, warm area accompany back pain, infection could be the cause.
Injury. Pain can be the result of damage to the bones, ligaments, or muscles of the back.

When to seek medical help
In rare cases, back pain can signal a serious health problem. See a doctor immediately if your back pain:

• Is constant or intense, especially when lying down
• Spreads down one or both legs
• Causes weakness, numbness or tingling in one or both legs
• Causes new bowel or bladder problems
• Is accompanied by abdominal pain or throbbing, or fever
• Is a result of a fall or another injury
• Is accompanied by unexplained weight loss

Also, health experts recommend that you see your doctor if this is new pain and you’re older than age 50 or have a history of cancer, osteoporosis, steroid use, or drug or alcohol abuse.

Most back pain can be relieved after several weeks of home treatment including a regular schedule of pain relievers and hot and cold therapy. While some bed rest may help, too much of it can actually cause more harm than good. A 1996 Finnish study found that exercise was more effective in mobilizing the back than bed rest.