It happens to almost every adult on the planet. You bend to retrieve something off the floor and suddenly a stabbing pain in the small of your lower back, where your lumbar vertebrae are located, tells you you've done something terribly wrong. "At least 80 per cent of people, if not more, will get a backache at some point in their lifetime," confirms Cathy Christie, a physiotherapist with Doug Christie Physiotherapy in Winnipeg.
Here's what you need to know about lower back pain.
1. Symptoms can vary from mild to almost disabling.
You may suffer a mere nagging muscle ache, but you may also be among those unfortunate enough to get shooting or stabbing pains or muscle spasms up your back. Some people have such severe back pain that they're unable to stand straight or rotate their back. Most people (80 to 90 per cent) recover from the back injury that has caused the pain within four to six weeks, says Dr. Jill Hayden, a research fellow at the Institute for Work and Health in Toronto.
2. It's usually many minor mis-movements over time that cause lower back pain.
The wrong motion done often enough is the main cause of lower back pain. "Most often people develop lower back pain by recurrent minor strains to their back," says Christie. A poor setup at your desk where you're constantly twisting your back to look at the monitor or turning to acknowledge coworkers at the office door is a prime example. "Lifting things is also hazardous for your back, but it doesn't have to be a one-time, single lift that does it; it can just be picking things up repeatedly over the years and bending down the wrong way to do it," she adds. If you're not bending your knees to pick things up off the floor and holding whatever you've retrieved close to your body, you're doing it wrong.
3. Bed rest is the worst thing to do for an injured back.
"When someone has an episode of lower back pain, bed rest predisposes her to the condition becoming chronic," says Hayden. Instead, she recommends that, as much as possible, people stay active, keep going to work and maintain daily activity levels. These sentiments have been echoed by public health officials in Australia, as well as by those in Alberta, where the slogan Back Pain – Don't Take It Lying Down helps raise awareness of what not to do when you injure your back.
4. Back pain essentially gets better on its own.
Apart from staying active, there isn't much you can do to hasten recovery after you've injured your lower back. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs may reduce pain and inflammation, and spinal manipulation (chiropractic treatment) can be effective in the short term, says Hayden.
Page 1 of 2 – Discover the last tip you should know about back pain, plus learn which of your habits could lead to a sore back on page 2.
Using heat or ice to alleviate back pain is a matter of preference, although Christie advocates ice during the first few days after the injury. Muscle relaxants have not been proven effective by legitimate research. "When you first injure your back, you have to pamper it a bit and be careful of what you do; pay attention to how you get out of bed, how you get up and down from the chair and how much time you spend sitting," says Christie. "But when your back is a bit better, it's time to start your exercise program again."
5. Core strength is critical to prevent lower back pain.
To keep your back healthy, your fitness program should include stretching muscles in the back of the thigh and in the hips and back. You also need good posture. For this you need to keep the truncal region stable when you bend over, pick things up off the floor, stand, sit and walk. Truncal strength can be achieved through a variety of exercises, but evidence now suggests that both yoga and Pilates work wonders for improving core strength and flexibility.
Habits that cause back pain
It's not just one major injury but many minor mis-movements over time that cause lower back pain. Here are habits that can affect your back:
• Sitting for long periods of time can exacerbate a sore bck. Sitting actually puts more compression on the disks in your back than standing "so sitting is not necessarily a rest for your back," says Christie.
• Carrying an overloaded backpack to and from school every day is another source of low back pain.
• The wrong footwear – stilletto heels for example – can throw your spine out of alignment and contribute to lower back pain.
• In contrast, shoes that provide good support or help correct foot problems reduce stress on the back and legs.
• Good cushioning in the soles of shoes absorb shock while walking or running and protects the lower back.
More resources on back pain:
Low back pain
Risk factors and red flags.
Living with chronic back pain
Pain management advice.
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