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Back Pain Myths and Facts

It is a fact that 8 out of 10 people will experience back pain at some point in their life.  Back pain is one of the most common pain complaints and we all know someone who has suffered from back pain or have experienced it ourselves.  When a person has an episode of back pain if often seems that everyone from the next door neighbor to one’s spouse has an opinion to how it should be treated.  Some advice will be helpful and some will be based solely on myth.

Some common back pain myths are:

Myth:  Bed rest is the first course of action.  In fact, bed rest should be advised only when the pain is so severe the person is unable to weight bear on his/her legs.  Once a person is able to get out of bed, slow and gentle movement is the best course of action.  Increasing blood flow will speed the healing process.

Myth:  Bulging discs need surgery.  In fact, the vast majority of bulging discs heal with conservative treatment (physical therapy and medication to treat the inflammation and pain).  Only when nerve involvement is severe and the symptoms are not improving with conservative therapy does surgery need to be considered. 

Myth:  Back pain typically results from a specific injury.  In fact, most back pain has an insidious onset.  Patients often report waking with back pain that was not there the day before.  Injuries to the disc are often the “straw that broke the camel’s back” type of injuries.  Simply bending over to tie a shoe can bulge a disc that is contained by only a few fibers.  Osteoarthritis typically develops gradually in the spine and one jarring motion can set off an episode of back pain.

Myth:  Lying on your back and pulling your knees to your chest is the best back stretch.  This can be a good exercise for some types of back pain and it can exacerbate other types of back pain.  The best advice is to listen to your body.  If pulling knees to chest relieves the majority of your pain while doing it and does not increase pain following the exercise, then it is likely a good exercise.  If lying on your stomach and propping up on your elbows relieves the pain and feels better following the exercise, then this is the direction you want to stretch into.  If you are unsure, an evaluation by a physical therapist can help determine the best exercise.

Myth:  Use Heat always/Use Ice always.  The best advice is to use ice for the first few days following an acute injury.  Ice for 15 minutes, until you skin is numb to light touch.  You can ice many times throughout the day as long as you skin comes back to normal temperature between icing sessions.  Heat can feel good on chronic, arthritic pain.  Heat will help lubricate a tight and arthritic joint.

When in doubt, consult your physician and/or physical therapist and get the treatment you need.  Back pain can be very debilitating, but there are many treatment options.

by Kirsten G. Transue, PT, OCS


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