Back and Spine Problems

Back pain plagues most people at some point in their lives. Learn to pinpoint the causes and how to best treat the pain.

A person suffering from back pain with hands held on their back

Oh, my aching back: managing back pain

Back pain is one of the most common reasons people go to the doctor or miss work.

According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, 75%-85% of Americans will experience back pain at some point in their lives. Of course, knowing you are not alone with your aching back doesn’t make it any easier. 

Pinpointing the cause of your back and spine problem is the first step, followed by knowing how to treat the pain and prevent further injuries.

What causes back and spine problems?

Back pain can be the result of problems with the structure of your spine (including vertebrae and disks) or problems with your muscles, ligaments or nerves.

Back pain can stem from:

  • Accidents – a sudden injury from falling, tripping, a car accident or twisting of the spine
  • Strain – a sudden injury due to lifting a heavy object or doing yard work
  • Overuse – a gradual injury during everyday activities, often from improper movement
  • Diseases – degenerative conditions such as osteoporosis, osteoarthritis and spinal stenosis

Additional risk factors include age, excess weight, having a family history of back pain and sitting for long periods.

How can you treat back pain?

Most back pain will get better in a few weeks. If yours doesn’t improve in that time, or if the pain is the result of a serious accident or injury, see your health care provider.

If the back pain is minor, home treatment will often suffice. You might try:

  • Over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen or naproxen
  • Topical rubs and ointments
  • Ice packs to reduce inflammation (wrap the ice pack in a thin towel first)
  • Warm compresses to relieve pain after inflammation has subsided

If the back pain is serious, your health care provider might recommend:

  • Physical therapy or manipulative therapy (such as chiropractic services)
  • Medication, such as pain relief, muscle relaxants or steroid injections

Additional approaches to pain relief include massage, acupuncture and relaxation techniques.

In a small number of cases, surgery may be required. It is considered a last resort treatment.

Visit your health care provider for a thorough exam and treatment plan.

How can you prevent back pain?

Half of the people who experience back pain will have more than one episode within a year, according to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons.

Follow these tips to prevent back pain from recurring or happening in the first place:

  • Carry less – use a backpack or bag with wheels instead of a heavy laptop bag or purse
  • Strengthen your core – work the muscles around your abdomen and back
  • Improve your posture – sit upright in your chair and regularly roll your shoulders back
  • Stretch often – improve the circulation to your muscles to reduce the risk of strain
  • Maintain a healthy weight – excess body weight can strain muscles
  • Stand smart – don’t slouch, and place a foot on a low stool to reduce lower back strain
  • Lift smart – avoid heavy lifting, bend only at the knees with a straight back and find a lifting partner