More Than You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About Back Pain

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More Than You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About Back Pain

Unless
you’re blessed with a perfect musculoskeletal system (or you’re
under the age of 24), you’ve probably experienced some type of back
pain. It hurts; and it hurts all the time! Luckily, there are ways to
ease the pain—and prevent it from coming back. Here’s everything
you need to know, from the possible causes of your back issues to
doctor-approved treatments.

WHAT
IS CAUSING MY BACK PAIN?


To
find the cause, we first need an understanding of how the back works.
Basically, your back is made up of interconnecting nerves, bones,
muscles, ligaments and tendons, all of which can be sources of pain.
Your back is comprised of a large, complex group of muscles that
support the trunk and hold the body upright. They also allow the
trunk to move, twist and bend in multiple directions.

You
have two kinds of muscles with some acting in more than one way.
Lucky for you, the names rhyme! Muscles of STABILITY (these are your
‘core’ muscles) which are muscles that are the deepest in the body
and are directly on the bones and spine – these muscles keep you
standing up or sitting upright. The second group are the muscles of
MOBILITY (these are the muscles you see in the mirror, ‘vanity’
muscles – the muscles that allow you to move in every direction).

As
anyone who has attended medical training will explain there are three
main muscle groups found in the back. First, the extensor muscles,
which allow us to stand and lift objects. Flexor muscles are attached
to the front of the spine and include the abdominal muscles. They
allow us to flex, bend forward, lift and arch the lower back. Lastly,
the oblique muscles, which are attached to the sides of the spine and
help us rotate the spine and maintain proper posture. Sometimes,
straining the aforementioned muscles and ligaments can cause back
pain. These strains can come about through chronic stress (caused by
bad posture), tight muscles and certain exercises—like sit-ups and
boxing—which can be harmful if done incorrectly.

Outside
of muscle strain, back pain can also be caused by the spinal cord
anatomy like bulging or herniated disks. “Disk” refers to the
rubbery cushions situated between the individual bones (vertebrae)
that stack up to make your spine. “[A herniated disk] results when
a crack in the tough outer layer of cartilage allows some of the
softer inner cartilage to protrude out of the disk,” says Randy A.
Shelerud, M.D. “Herniated disks are also called ruptured disks or
slipped disks, although the whole disk does not rupture or slip.” A
bulging disk, on the other hand, is a result of wear and tear on the
back. “Over time, disks dehydrate and their cartilage stiffens.
These changes can cause the outer layer of the disk to bulge out
fairly evenly all the way around its circumference—so it looks a
little like a hamburger that’s too big for its bun.”

How
can you tell if you’re dealing with a disk issue? Symptoms are
often more severe than a run-of-the-mill strain and can include pain
and sensations that have nothing to do with the back, like a tingling
radiating down the legs and into the feet, sudden weakness in one or
both legs and bowel or bladder problems. If you’re dealing with any
of these symptoms, head to a back specialist such as a chiropractor,
who will likely order tests (like an MRI, CT scans or X-rays) to
diagnose the issue.

On top
of those potential culprits, back pain can also be caused by plain
old overuse. (Back pain, after all, affects around 80 percent of
adults at some point in their lives, according to the National
Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.)

1.
Stretch—a Lot

Yoga
and stretching can help manage and prevent back pain. On the yoga
front, we checked in with Sarah Sumner, a yoga instructor at Laughing
Lotus, a studio with locations in New York, San Francisco and New
Orleans, for three poses she recommends for people with back
issues—and the ones to avoid. If you don’t have a mat and yoga
strap laying around, we also consulted Callista Costopoulos Morris,
DO, a sports orthopedic surgeon with the Geisinger Musculoskeletal
Institute in Pennsylvania, for five super-easy stretches that should
quell back pain. Try child’s pose to target the smallest muscles in
your back and stretch out your hamstrings on a daily basis—not just
when you’re in pain (we routinely teach this at SAFETY LANE
(973-344-5656)

2.
Apply a Topical Treatment Like Capsaicin Cream

Capsaicin
is the ingredient in chili peppers that makes your mouth feel hot
when you eat them. When it’s incorporated into creams and patches,
it can be an effective tool for relieving—not curing—pain caused
by joint conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, migraines,
fibromyalgia or plain old muscle strains. Capsaicin cream is
typically available without a prescription, and doctors will usually
advise you to apply it to wherever you’re experiencing pain a few
times a day. There haven’t been many studies on the efficacy of
capsaicin creams and patches, but the research that is out there is
pretty promising. A 2016 University of Michigan study found that, for
people with lower back woes, capsaicin reduced pain more than a
placebo. (The authors of the study did note that additional research
is needed.)

3. Try
Massage

We
know what you’re thinking: Oh hi, spa day. But not so fast—the
type of massage matters. One promising technique is myofascial
release therapy, an alternative medicine therapy that claims to treat
pain by relaxing contracted muscles, improving blood and lymphatic
circulation and stimulating the stretch reflex in muscles. It’s a
therapy that’s often used in massages and focuses on pain from
myofascial tissues—the tough membranes that wrap, connect and
support your muscles. There haven’t been a ton of studies conducted
on the efficacy of myofascial release therapy, but one study
published in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies concluded
that myofascial release is emerging as a strategy with a solid
evidence base and tremendous potential.

4.
Consider Balneotherapy

OK, so
this is kind of just a fancy term for taking a long bath, but stay
with us. Balneotherapy is a form of hydrotherapy that involves
spending 20 to 30 minutes in a bath. This could be mineral-enriched
water that occurs naturally in some places (like hot springs) or tap
water that’s been enhanced with salts, oils or mineral-rich mud.
Dating back to ancient Greece and Rome, balneotherapy has been touted
as an effective treatment for back pain, as well as a way to quell
psoriasis, promote circulation and even brighten skin. A study in the
journal Rheumatology found that, “Even though the data [is] scarce,
there is encouraging evidence suggesting that spa therapy and
balneotherapy may be effective for treating patients with low back
pain,” while adding that more studies are necessary. Will
balneotherapy make your back feel better? Possibly. Will you feel
cozy and relaxed? Definitely.

5.
Talk to Your Doctor

If
you’re looking for a treatment with a little more concrete
scientific backing, check in with your MD, DO or chiropractor. (That
isn’t to say the above methods are unsafe—they just haven’t
been studied as thoroughly as others.) Your doc will likely suggest a
course of action that could include over-the-counter pain medication,
physical therapy, cortisone injections, muscle relaxers and if all
else fails, surgery. In terms of alternative treatments—aside from
yoga—some people also find relief from chiropractic care and
acupuncture.

6. Do
the *Right* Exercises

If
certain gym routines can cause or exacerbate back pain, others can
help prevent it. Here are some back-strengthening exercises
recommended by the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.
And as a general rule of thumb, always consult a professional before
attempting a new movement to make sure you’re doing it right. We’re
not saying you have to shell out hundreds on a trainer, but if you’re
unsure at the gym, it’s always beneficial to ask someone who knows
what they’re doing to take a look at your form and offer any
corrections.

7.
Work on Your Posture

Mom
always told you to sit up straight, but somehow you still find
yourself hunched over your computer ten times a day. Bad posture can
wreak havoc on your back, so we asked Dr. Kellen Scantlebury of Fit
Club Physical Therapy and Sports Performance Center to give us a few
easy ways to straighten up. His easy-to-implement tips include
switching the shoulder you wear your bag on periodically, investing
in an elevated computer stand at work and uncrossing your legs and
keeping your feet flat on the floor. It’s tough at first, but
sitting with crossed legs all day can be bad news for your lower body
and spine.

3.
Switch Up Your Sleep Position

Sorry,
stomach sleepers: When you sleep face-down, it can put stress on your
lower back and neck. Try sleeping on your side with a pillow between
your knees, or on your back with a pillow under your knees. And if
you absolutely must sleep on your stomach, try taking the pillow out
from under your head and putting it under your pelvis instead.

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