If you suffer from low back pain, you're in the majority. Four out of five people will experience some type of low back pain in their lifetimes. But why?
The back is a complicated place. The spine is a stack of more than 30 bones (vertebrae) that surround and protect the spinal cord; tiny nerves enter and exit the spine along its entire length. The vertebrae are held together by muscles, tendons and ligaments. Between the vertebrae are 23 discs, the shock absorbers that prevent the vertebrae from colliding as we walk, run, and jump. Those discs also help our spines to bend, twist and extend. The lower back, or lumbar region, carries most of our weight, so it's not surprising that it's the site of most back pain, often caused by poor posture and poor lifting techniques.
Low back pain comes in many forms. It can present itself as inflammation, spasms, nerve pain, or just plain aching back, and treatment varies with each symptom. If imaging studies don't reveal any permanent damage, such as a fracture or significant disc herniation, back pain will generally get better with habit changes, says orthopedic pain specialist Ninad Sthalekar, MD. The only way to know for certain is to get a complete evaluation from a physician who will perform imaging studies x-rays, MRIs, or CT scans to determine the source of the pain.
Select from many treatment options
After determining the source of the problem, your doctor can choose from a variety of conservative treatment options such as medications, physical therapy, or perhaps a brace. Interventional therapies for conditions like arthritis, joint strain, disc herniation, and spinal stenosis (a narrowing of the canal that holds the spinal cord and squeezes the nerves) include injections of a local anesthetic and/or steroids to the problem area. These injections can be done under x-ray guidance in an outpatient surgical center.
See the doctor... or go it alone?
Should you see a doctor about your back pain or just wait it out? It is never too soon to visit the doctor, advises Dr. Sthalekar. If you have pain that persists for more than two days with bed rest, or if you have pain that shoots to your extremities, you need to make an appointment. An early visit can help you avoid more damage and consequently increased pain.
Also, if you have a history of back pain or a recurring problem, the doctor can educate you on proper lifting techniques and other body mechanics, and most importantly, educate you on what is causing your pain. Seeking professional medical advice is the best way to find the treatment option that's right for you.
Dr. Ninad Sthalekar is an Interventional Spine and Pain Management specialist with Bucks County Orthopedic Specialists.