Eighty percent of us will experience back problems at some point in our lives. Back pain is ranked second only to headaches as the most frequent cause of pain, and tops the list of workplace injuries, causing more lost time, disability, and lost dollars than any other workplace injury.
Our backs are a carefully engineered network of bones, tendons, ligaments, and nerves that help balance and bear the weight of our bodies and the loads we carry. Any minor damage or imbalance to this delicate system can stress muscles and joints, causing pain and injury. A lifetime of poor posture, poor lifting, bending and reaching, and twisting activities can gradually weaken your back’s supportive structures as well as cause pain and injury.
With all these risk factors, it’s no wonder so many of us suffer from back pain. But it’s not a part of life you have to passively accept.
Read on to learn a little more about back pain including symptoms, home treatment, when to see a doctor, as well as how to prevent back pain in the first place.
Most back pain is the result of strained or overworked muscles and ligaments (other causes may include arthritis, osteoporosis, and urinary tract infections). The most common symptoms of simple back sprains and strains are listed below. They include:
Doing crunches properly (going slowly and not sitting up all the way) can strengthen your stomach muscles, and may provide some much needed relief from back pain. Check with your healthcare professional before taking on an exercise program.
There are some tell tale signs indicating that you’re experiencing something more serious than a simple backache. See a healthcare provider if you experience any of the following conditions.
Because most back pain is the result of minor muscle and ligament sprains and strains, the majority of back pain can be treated simply and inexpensively in your own home. If you’re experiencing minor back pain, try some of the following strategies for relief.
“More than 65 million Americans experience low back pain every year.”
Take a look at the following frequently asked questions—they’ll help you further understand this condition, and better care for yourself and your family.
Do I need surgery for my bad back?No, not usually. More times than not, your back pain can be treated without going under the knife. However, some conditions, like a herniated disk, may benefit from surgery. Even still, herniated disks may heal on their own. Bottom line—you should carefully consider your options, and then consider them again, before thinking about surgery.
What about alternative therapy?Nontraditional therapy is becoming more widely accepted these days. It wasn’t long ago that chiropractic treatment was viewed as an “alternative” therapy. Now these specialists are a common part of the back care landscape. Other alternative therapies have received praise from sufferers, too. The choice is up to you.
I sit at a desk all day. Am I at risk for back pain and injury?Yes. It’s a common misconception that physical laborers and construction workers are at a higher risk for back injuries. The fact is, those individuals in sedentary jobs are at risk for back injury, too. Exercise and regular movement are important factors in maintaining a healthy back.
How can I arrange my office environment to protect my back?A chair with good back support and height adjusters that allow you to keep both feet flat on the floor can do wonders to keep your back in a healthy state. If you don’t have an adjustable chair, try to use a chair with a simple straight back whenever possible. Also, when it comes to your desk, arrange items (phone, keyboard, monitor, etc.) where you won’t have to twist and turn excessively to access them.
Will my back pain ever go away?There’s good news and bad news. First the good news. With proper self-care and good prevention techniques you can be well on your way to fighting off back pain. Now the bad news. Considering that 80 percent of Americans experience back pain at some point in their lives—much of it recurring—you may never get rid of back pain altogether. That’s why it’s important to practice the prevention tips included in this section—and keep doing them even when you’re feeling better.
Once you’ve experienced an acute episode of back pain, you’re five times more likely to suffer another episode. You can reduce this risk and the risk of back pain in general by making some of the important lifestyle changes outlined below—be sure to work with your healthcare provider in advance to ensure your health and safety.
Keeping a healthy back means incorporating stretching into your daily routine. Here are a few key exercises to concentrate on. Remember, never stretch cold muscles. Make sure to get some blood flowing first by walking or doing some quick deep knee bends or jumping jacks for approximately 60 to 90 seconds.
Exercise #1: Knee to ShoulderLie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor, and arms at your sides. Grasp your right knee and gently pull it up toward your right shoulder. Return to the starting position and repeat the exercise with your left leg.
Exercise #2: Seated Trunk FlexionSitting near the edge of a chair, spread your legs and cross your arms over your chest. Tuck your chin and slowly curl your trunk downward. Relax. Uncurl slowly into an upright position, raising your head last.
Exercise #3: Press UpLie on your stomach with your hands in position as if preparing for a push-up. Slowly lift your torso while keeping your hips and legs down and in contact with the floor. Raise your torso, slowly increasing the lower back curve to a point where you feel a stretch, then lower yourself back down to the starting position. Repeat.
If you suffer from regular headaches, you’re not alone. Nearly 90 percent of the population has had at least one headache in the last year, and many sufferers experience not only the pain, but also the diminished quality of life, and out-of-pocket expenses, which add up fast. In fact, it is estimated that Americans spend more than $4 billion each year on over-the-counter pain relievers to ease their headaches.
The good news is that in the last 20 years, medical research has identified new insights into pain management. The new understanding has led to advances in treatment and renewed hope for longtime sufferers.
Although there are different types of headaches—150 to be exact—tension headaches and migraine headaches are the most common.
Tension headaches. Tension headaches are experienced by as many as 90 percent of adults, and are the most common kind of headache. Also known as muscle contraction or stress headaches, tension headaches are typically associated with a dull, aching pain that affects both sides of the head.
Migraine headaches. The second most common type of headache, migraines affect approximately 28 million Americans. Migraine headaches typically affect one side of the head, have a pulsating or throbbing sensation, and are often accompanied by nausea or vomiting and sensitivity to light and sound.
Now that we know a little more about the two main types of headaches, let’s learn about each in detail, getting a better grasp on the symptoms associated with each. The following symptoms will help you better distinguish between tension headaches and migraine headaches.
“Nearly ninety percent of the population has had at least one headache in the last year.”
The severity of migraine pain has led people to explore a variety of treatment options. Here are three treatment options you may want to consider if you’re dealing with migraine pain.
Remember, when it comes to migraines, do what works best for you. Consult with your healthcare provider and experiment cautiously to reduce pain.
There are times when your headache becomes more than just an annoyance. Severe headaches that are long-lasting and accompanied by some of the symptoms listed here can be a sign of a more serious condition. See your healthcare provider right away if your headache includes any the following characteristics.
There are a number of ways you can help to ensure headaches don’t take you out of the game. The following suggestions can help you take control of a headache before it takes control of you.
Can headaches be prevented?Although not every headache can be prevented altogether, paying attention to things like reducing stress, exercising regularly, quitting smoking, and avoiding headache “triggers,” can help you reduce the frequency and severity of your headaches.
I’ve heard that relaxation exercises can help treat headaches. What types of re-laxation methods are recommended?Using relaxation techniques like rhythmic breathing, deep breathing, visualized breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, listening to music, and guided imagery can be a big help for those suffering from tension headaches. Keep in mind, however, that there is no perfect recipe for relaxation; you’ll have to do what works best for you.
What are rebound headaches, and which medications are most responsible for causing them?Rebound headaches are constant, low-grade headaches that often will not go away. It is thought that the use of common over-the-counter medications—when taken in large quantities and over a long period of time—can cause rebound headaches. Aspirin, acetaminophen, Anacin, and Excedrin, can be very effective when taken as directed, but be careful not to overdo it.
I’ve heard that certain foods and beverages can trigger headaches. Which ones should I look out for?Alcohol—especially beer, whiskey, champagne, and red wine—can cause headaches because of the impurities it contains, and because alcohol increases blood flow to the brain. Cold foods like ice cream or cold beverages may also trigger headaches. You may also want to watch out for food additives like nitrates, which can dilate blood vessels and bring about headaches in some people.
Are migraines hereditary?Yes. Unfortunately, migraine headaches run in families. It’s been estimated that if one parent has a history of migraines, the child has a 50/50 chance of having migraines as well.
If both parents suffer from migraines, then there’s a 75 percent chance that the child will have migraines, too.
What about caffeine, is it good or bad for my headache?It appears to be both. According to some researchers, caffeine is good for your headache. A widely accepted substance for treating headaches, caffeine has been found in many prescription and over-the-counter headache medicines. According to some research, caffeine makes pain relievers 40 percent more effective in treating headaches. Too much caffeine, however, (for example taking medication and drinking excessive amounts of coffee) may increase your chances for rebound headaches.
Most would agree, an occasional headache is probably just a fact of life. That being said, nobody should have to deal with frequent and severe headaches. The following prevention techniques should be employed if you’d like to cope more effectively with headaches.
Most abdominal pain is not serious, although it can be extremely uncomfortable. Diarrhea, constipation, and excessive gas are common causes of abdominal pain. Fortunately, these conditions can be treated at home using simple self-care techniques. Treatment depends on which of these conditions you are experiencing.
Oftentimes, the symptoms of diarrhea, constipation, and gas can be similar, and may even be experienced together. Take a closer look at the symptoms outlined here to determine which condition you may be experiencing.
Remember the Two-Hour Rule. Abdominal pain is often linked to food poisoning—remember the two-hour rule. Leaving food at room temperature for more than two hours is dangerous—bacteria grow rapidly between 40°F and 140°F. Remember to refrigerate leftovers immediately after eating. Use shallow containers to speed cooling. Also, the USDA recommends that food left in the fridge for more than three to five days be discarded.
Most abdominal pain is more of an annoyance than a serious medical condition. However, there are times when your condition may indicate the presence of a more serious health problem. Seek medical attention if you’re experiencing any of the following symptoms.
Home treatment for most abdominal pain is relatively straightforward, and most often involves taking an over-the-counter medication to relieve symptoms.
“There’s no single way to prevent gas altogether, but paying close attention to what you eat, and how your body reacts to it, is a good first step.”
I hear that a normal person has a bowel movement at least once a day. Is this true?No. In fact, anywhere from three times a day to three times a week is considered “normal.”
What you should be most concerned with is what is most normal for you. Your bowel frequency may change slightly from time to time, which is nothing to worry about. Drastic changes, however, may be cause to seek medical advice.
What’s the best way to prevent gas?There’s no single way to prevent gas altogether, but paying close attention to what you eat, and how your body reacts to it, is a good first step. Watch also what you drink. Carbonated drinks such as soda and beer can cause gas. Be sure to get plenty of ex-ercise, as this will help your body eliminate gas in a healthy, natural way.
I tend to get traveler’s diarrhea every year. How can I avoid it?Traveler’s diarrhea is common among international travelers (in fact 20 to 50 percent of these travelers will experience traveler’s diarrhea). But traveler’s diarrhea is not just limited to international travelers; anyone is at risk if eating undercooked food from street vendors and even food at buffets. In all of these conditions, bacteria are present and can cause traveler’s diarrhea. Simply stated, watch what you eat when you travel to avoid traveler’s diarrhea.
Many abdominal pains, especially those caused by diarrhea, constipation, and gas, can easily be prevented by following a few simple lifestyle guidelines. To reduce your inci-dence of abdominal pain, try the following:
For years, stomach ulcers were a mystery—nobody really knew what caused them. Some thought it had much to do with diet, while others believed excessive smoking and drinking was the culprit. And almost everyone suspected stress.
As it turns out, everybody was right—almost. While lifestyle factors, such as those mentioned above, make ulcers more likely to appear, ulcers are actually caused by a bacteria named H. pylori. Some ulcers are also caused by overuse of aspirin and other over-the-counter pain relievers.
An ulcer is a sore in the lining of the digestive track that can be quite painful. Burning pain in the abdomen is frequent with an ulcer, as are dark, red stools caused by bleeding in the stomach. If you suspect that you have an ulcer, make an appointment to see your healthcare provider. He or she can provide a treatment regimen that’s right for you.
Of course, prevention is always the best route to take. Make ulcers less likely by quitting smoking, limiting alcohol use, and watching the amount of over-the-counter pain relievers you consume.
Appendicitis is an inflammation of the appendix, a small, hollow sac attached to the large intestine. The appendix is located in the lower right area of the abdomen. Fortunately, a very specific sequence of events will usually occur if you have appendicitis.
If appendicitis is the cause of your pain, the first symptom you will most likely experience is pain near the belly button or just below the breastbone. Next, you may experience nausea and vomiting. You may also lose your appetite. The third symptom you will most likely experience with appendicitis is pain in the lower, right corner of your abdomen. Finally, you will experience a fever between 100°F and 102°F.
Remember, these are the classic signs and symptoms of appendicitis—if you suspect you have appendicitis, contact your healthcare provider right away.
Pain is a well-known fact of life, and for many of us, an all-to-common occurrence in daily living Pain is actually a warning signal—our body’s way of telling us something isn’t quite right Without pain, we would have no way of knowing about serious, medical conditions ongoing in our bodies, and treatment of these conditions could be significantly delayed.
General pain comes in two varieties—acute and chronic.
Acute pain can usually be diagnosed and treated, and is usually confined to a given period of time and level of severity. Examples of acute pain include cutting your finger, or bumping your head.
Chronic pain persists over a long period of time and is resistant to most medical treat-ments. Chronic pain severely limits life enjoyment. Examples of chronic pain include arthritis, backaches, and sometimes conditions that are difficult to identify.
There are literally hundreds of techniques used to manage pain. Three of the most common and universally accepted methods are discussed here. Keep in mind, when it comes to managing your pain, work with your healthcare provider to determine which strategy works best for you.
Pain Relievers/Medications (analgesics)—Common pain relievers include substances like ibuprofen, acetaminophen, and aspirin. These substances can be effective in treating both acute and chronic pain if used according to label directions. Common pain relievers work by blocking the production of prostaglandin (prass-tih-glan-din)—a chemical that tells the brain the location and severity of the pain.
Physical Therapy—If you have chronic pain, or are recovering from an accident or medical procedure that causes bouts of acute pain, you may benefit from seeing a physical therapist. A physical therapist is a highly-trained professional who works with individuals to reduce pain through range of motion exercises, stretching, strength training, and general exercise. If you think your pain may be reduced by working with a physical therapist, ask your healthcare provider about a referral.
Exercise—A specifically prescribed exercise regimen is increasingly becoming a part of most healthcare providers’ recommendations for the treatment of pain. Because many types of chronic pain are linked with tense, weak muscles, exercise—even light exer-cise—has proven itself effective in contributing to an overall sense of well-being by im-proving blood and oxygen flow to the muscles. It’s important, however, that you follow your healthcare provider’s specific recommendations to avoid further injury and greater pain.
Running Hot and Cold. Finding relief from chronic or acute pain may sometimes be as simple as applying heat or cold to the affected area. Try using an ice pack to reduce pain related to inflammation. Using a heating pad or a water bottle to apply heat to an affected area should help relieve muscle tension and cramps. Apply heat or cold as needed for 20 minutes at a time. You may find that either heat or cold works better for your pain management. If so, stick with it.
Because acute pain is often associated with specific medical conditions, when to see a healthcare provider depends on the type of condition you’re experiencing. Do some re-search and speak with a healthcare professional to learn more. Keep in mind that sudden, severe pain—the worst pain you’ve ever experienced—is always a medical emergency, and reason to call 911.
“When treating aches and pains get plenty of rest, but stay cautiously active—prolonged rest may cause muscles to weaken.”
The quiz below is designed to test your knowledge on the information presented in this section. Use this quiz as a tool to better understand how to care for yourself and others.
The information contained in this guide is based on the best health information available and has been reviewed for accuracy. This information is not intended to replace the advice of your healthcare provider. If you have any questions about managing your own health and/or seeking medical care, please contact a medical professional.
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