Senior man suffering back pain

Managing Chronic Back Pain 

Back pain can be debilitating: it’s the leading cause of disability, causing people to miss work or enjoy everyday activities. It affects 31 million Americans at any given time and can affect mental health as well: people with chronic back pain said they had downhearted feelings including worthlessness, sadness and nervousness in a recent survey.  

What is chronic back pain? 

Chronic back pain is pain that lasts for more than three months and is usually related to age or a prior injury. There’s no one-size-fits all solution to back pain, and the cause can make be difficult to pinpoint. Some of the more common causes can include:  

  • Arthritis of the spine 
  • Spinal stenosis 
  • A herniated or bulging disc  
  • Myofascial pain syndrome 

When to go to the doctor  

Talk to your health care provider if you’re experiencing chronic back pain that lasts for more than six weeks. They may be able to recommend initial steps to take to help you manage your pain, including referring you to a physical therapist. There are other treatment options that may be right for you.  

If you are experiencing back pain and other symptoms including fever, dragging toes, sharp pain at night, trauma, numbness or tingling, loss of bowel or bladder function, a history of cancer, immune system suppression, osteoporosis or chronic steroid use, see a health care provider as soon as possible. The back pain may indicate a more serious condition.  

Ways to manage pain at home 

Exercise is the foundation of chronic back pain treatment, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. Working with a physical therapist is a good first step to find a custom exercise routine that will help you strengthen different parts of your body and stabilize your spine. It’s important to carry these exercises with you and keep doing them after your therapy sessions end.  

Adjusting your diet may also help reduce the inflammation that may be irritating your back. Diets high in trans fats, refined sugars and processed foods could be making your chronic back pain worse. Talk to your health care provider to learn more about how your diet could make an impact. 

Identify the activities that cause your pain to flare up and find ways to modify them or avoid them if needed. Slowing down and moving intentionally can protect your back and prevent your condition from worsening.  

Smoking cigarettes could also be preventing your back from healing, as studies have shown nicotine can make your pain worse and hinders the body’s ability to get better.  

Preventative steps  

Here are some tips to help prevent back pain from starting:  

  • Keep a healthy weight and eat a balanced diet  
  • Stay active and exercise as your doctor recommends  
  • Warm up and stretch before exercise or activities, including cleaning and gardening  
  • Keep good form and posture when moving around and lifting objects 
  • Wear supportive shoes 
  • Sleep on a mattress that minimizes the curve of your spine  
  • Quit smoking to ensure your spinal tissue gets the oxygen and nutrients it needs 
  • Make sure your workspace is ergonomically correct  

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Photo credit: Getty Images

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