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Back Pain Treatments: What Works, What Doesn’t

Approximately 10% of individuals across the globe suffer from back pain, and it’s the number one cause of job disability. Low-back pain (LBP) holds second place for most common symptom-related doctor’s visit reason in the United States. And even though not everyone’s back pain gets bad enough to seek a physician’s help, it is estimated that 8 in 10 people will struggle with it to some degree at least once in their life.

Perhaps you’re relieved to hear you’re not alone, but what we’re really here to discuss is how to alleviate this pain. Here are some of the most common back pain treatments: the ones that work, the ones that don’t, and everything in between.

Surgery

Many low back pain sufferers are quick to ask for x-rays or other scans. However, medical experts agree that this is largely unnecessary.

Man with chronic back pain considers surgery for treatment

Exceptions to this rule include:

  • Pain that has lasted over a month
  • Cases that also include warning signs of underlying disease (such as cancer or infection) causing the pain. Warning symptoms that this may be the case include:
    • Family history of cancer
    • Long-term steroid use
    • Trauma to the spine
    • Being unable to:
      • Stand up
      • Urinate
      • Feel your anus or genitals
      • (Call an ambulance if any of the three symptoms above accompany your back pain)

There are numerous causes of back pain, but in most instances the pain goes away on its own after 2-4 weeks. If you have back pain related to a minor injury or strain, or just from sitting at a desk all day, there is a good chance it will fall into this category.

Far too many people have become victims of lifelong pain because they opted for a surgery that should have never happened, and the surgery made things worse. Be wary of any surgeons who say yes to surgery when others have said no.

This applies especially to spinal fusions, the results of which are often terrible. It is a well-recognized medical fact that disc degeneration does NOT cause back pain, contrary to what many members of the general public think. Because of the public’s false assumption, about 600,000 spinal fusions are performed in the U.S. each year at a cost of more than $600 billion. Many are for nonspecific low back pain.

Not only are many of these surgeries unnecessary, they often make the problem worse. Spinal fusions for back pain only have a success rate of 20-25 percent. For the other 75-80 percent of these individuals, the surgery sadly results in a lifetime of increased pain and suffering.

Pain Medication

Speaking of treatments that are often overused and can make matters worse, some doctors prescribe potentially addictive pain medications far too readily.

As discussed in the introduction, almost everyone has back pain at some point in his or her life. Unfortunately, finding a fast fix for something that is somewhat normal can have severe repercussions.

Back pain has become one of our country’s main causes of painkiller addiction and lethal drug overdoses. Research shows that if you suffer from back pain, you’re at especially high risk for opioid addiction and abuse.

Bottle of prescription painkillers, with some pills poured out of it

It doesn’t stop with legal drugs; these prescription addictions also sometimes turn into heroin addictions. A full 75 percent of heroin users report having started with prescription painkillers, including:

  • OxyContin
  • Percocet
  • Vicodin

These addictive opioid painkillers aren’t even that effective for back pain. They can cause opioid-induced hyperalgesia, a condition in which the brain actually generates pain that’s independent from the original injury. Furthermore, they often cause sleepiness and decrease patients’ motivation to do anything– which is ironic considering most people want to treat their back pain in order to live normally again.

Perhaps you’re thinking, “I’d never go near that strong of a painkiller,” but steroid shots and NSAIDS aren’t foolproof treatments either. In fact, a recent study showed that steroid shots provided moderate immediate results, but by 6 weeks after the shot, they showed no better pain relief than a placebo.

Another study showed that naproxen actually provides the same level of pain relief as the more dangerous narcotic painkillers. That being said, it comes with a laundry list of potential side effects that increase with frequency of use.

Chiropractic and Acupuncture

There are some mixed results when it comes to these two therapies. Some chiropractors definitely know how to treat back pain patients the right way. Their backgrounds in exercise science can provide the foundation for an effective rehabilitation plan. Numerous research studies have shown that chiropractic treatment is far safer and more affordable than allopathic medical treatments, especially in regard to back pain. This holds especially true if the manual therapy is used in the first six weeks.

However, a patient should be wary of any chiropractors who want to see them for an extended amount of time. Many studies have shown that being repeatedly adjusted, cracked, or walked over don’t do much good. And neck adjustments should be avoided at ALL COSTS.

Some studies have proven acupuncture to be extremely effective for:

  • Back pain
  • Neck pain
  • Shoulder pain
  • Headaches

That being said, acupuncture can be a part of an individual’s treatment plan, but usually isn’t advised as the first or only treatment to try.

Basically, the results of acupuncture are a bit of a toss up. It may work for you and it may not. However, unlike instances of neck adjustments going wrong in chiropractic, acupuncture is not typically ever dangerous if you go to a clean and reputable place.

Standing Desks

Standing desks are another mixed bag.

Sitting down all day is a very common root cause of back pain. The hazards of inactivity are often given spotlight in regard to obesity and overweightness, but less people realize that lack of movement can be taxing to individuals of any size. There are far more reasons than your weight to not sit down all day, and back pain is one of them!

If you work at a computer, you may find that a stand up desk can significantly improve your back pain symptoms. That being said, it can also put stress on a whole new set of ligaments. This can potentially cause knee and hip problems… which can lead to more back problems. The key to any work day at any desk– whether sitting or standing– is to take breaks to move around.

Staying Active

Not only should you take movement breaks throughout your workday, you should stay active in general!

(Taking a vacation from those work days? Check out Back Pain Relief Tips for the Savvy Traveler!)

It may seem counterintuitive to move your body if it’s hurting and all you want to do is lie down, but patients who resign themselves to a sedentary lifestyle will only experience a downward spiral of increased pain.

As tough as it may seem at first, try to get out there for that walk, swim, or bike ride. Do gentle stretches at home. Take an easy yoga class. Be wary of any workout that could push you to re-injure your back, such as a challenging flow yoga class or intense spin class. These opportunities to move your body shouldn’t be backbreaking (pun intended!) training sessions. Talk with your doctor about what would be best for your body, type of back pain, age, and lifestyle. There are countless different workouts that can help.

“Education and activity” is actually the number one treatment of acute and chronic low back pain. The term “education” refers to the teaching and learning of things such as:

  • Proper posture
  • Safe lifting techniques
  • Ways to reduce symptoms

Activities, or exercises, should be planned and closely monitored by a professional until you have the hang of them. Just remember that people who fear physical activity because they think they might injure themselves often end up hurting themselves far more with inactivity, which always ushers in greater pain.

Conclusion

There are myriad ways of treating low back pain. Everyone’s body is different, and of course there are different reasons for the pain. Remember that back pain isn’t typically serious, and surgery or opioid use usually aren’t the best options!

Unless you’re experiencing the red flags mentioned in the introduction (family history of cancer, trouble standing up, etc.), your back pain is probably nothing to worry about. Most people with low back pain find significant relief just by changing their lifestyle a little bit. Whether it’s taking periodic breaks to stretch and walk around the office or incorporating more exercise into your week, the little things are often the big things when it comes to banishing back pain.

If you want to be even more proactive about improving your health and lowering your pain levels, you could also consider participating in a back pain clinical trial here at Accord. We are currently enrolling a few more participants at our state-of-the-art facility here in Port Orange!

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