It supplies support for our neck and head, provides us with the strength to do everything from surf to sit, and gives us the mobility to turn, bend, and stretch.
But unless we’re in the special kind of agony that arrives with a benign injury or a major issue, how many of us give gratitude to our backs?
And yet, back pain is ubiquitous, affecting 31 million Americans at any given time and serving as the leading cause of disability worldwide. What’s more, low back pain—which ranges from acute to subacute and chronic—is, the American College of Physicians reports, “one of the most common reasons for all physician visits in the U.S.”
Whether you take your vertebrae for granted or shower it with care, here’s the lowdown on back pain—and how you can take your spinal health into your own hands.
What causes back pain?
From falling on ice to overdoing it in a CrossFit class, or simply bending the wrong way to tie your shoe, back pain can be triggered by a number of causes.
No surprise there, when you think about it: The human back is a brilliant but complicated design, structured of ligaments, joints, tendons, muscles, and bones (33 of them!)—all of which are susceptible to strains, sprains, irritation, disease, and more. Accidents and sport-related injuries might provoke pain, of course, but sometimes also the simplest of movements “can have painful results,” the American Chiropractic Association says. Other issues, including obesity, poor posture, kidney stones, arthritis—even sitting in a non-ergonomic chair all day at work—can take a toll on the well-being of your back.
Can it be fixed?
Experiencing a bout of back pain—or chronic aches—needn’t, well, put you on your back for good. As JAMA suggests, seek a physical examination from a medical practitioner if the pain persists for more than a few days or weeks, or if you have signs of nerve involvement, a fever, or weight loss. Your doctor will determine a course of action for you, whether that means physical therapy and exercise or medication. The good news? “Most back pain is uncomplicated and self-limited,” JAMA says. Even better? “Surgery is not usually needed,” JAMA also reports.
In the meantime, there are a number of measures you can take to mitigate the discomfort you may be experiencing. If you smoke, resolve to quit: a study out of Northwestern University discovered that smokers are three times more likely than nonsmokers to develop chronic back pain, in large part because smoking “affects the way the brain responds to back pain and seems to make individuals less resilient to an episode of pain,” the researchers said. Next up? Strengthen your center through core-building exercises like yoga and pilates, maintain a healthy weight (read: less stress on your spine), pay attention to your shoes (avoid high heels and search for supportive soles), and help your neighbor move her bookshelf wisely: “If you do lift something heavy,” the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion suggests, “bend your knees and keep your back straight. This way, your leg muscles will do most of the work.”
How to cope—and how to find relief
From calling in sick to work to having to decline that invitation for a hike, back pain—protracted or short-lived—can have a significant impact on every realm of your life. Coping strategies and the relief that comes with them are, however, available. Read on:
One of the first things you should do? Get moving. It may sound contradictory—and it may be tempting to recline on the couch with the remote—but physical activity is vital to preventing and treating back pain, the Journal of the American Medical Association reports. How so, you ask? For one, exercise increases blood flow, which aids in healing and recovery; it also fortifies the muscles that support the spine. Walking is one of the safest, gentlest ways to find relief and avert future episodes. Other top options include yoga, stretching, and swimming.
Heat up—and cool down
Heating pads don’t just feel great when it comes to stomach cramps—superficial heat can also work wonders in terms of back pain by encouraging circulation and relaxing tight muscles. On the flipside, cold—found in a bag of frozen veggies, an ice pack or a freezing gel—may help ease swelling.
We might live in a society that promotes instant gratification (hello, Amazon drones), but thoughtful endeavors can pay off in spades. According to 11 studies that included more than 1,100 people, acupuncture—the ancient Chinese therapy in which thin needles are used to stimulate specific points in the body—provided greater back pain relief than simulated treatments and over-the-counter NSAIDs (think: aspirin and ibuprofen). (Besides, booking a treatment with your local acupuncturist takes just as much time as rushing to the store to buy that pain reliever.) Massage may offer both instant relief and long-lasting benefits by moving lactic acid from sore muscles, while tai chi and yoga for back pain can improve overall posture and fosters relaxation techniques.
The sunshine vitamin—which naturally supports bone health—might be the ticket to a sounder, happier spine: Studies conducted by the National Institutes of Health revealed that vitamin D may bolster “bone metabolism.” Found in fortified milk, cod liver oil, egg yolks and yogurt, one of the savviest ways to get your daily dose is to spend 10 to 15 minutes, unprotected, in the sun.†
Manage stress (and smartly at that)
Myriad studies point to one’s emotional state as a huge predictor of the frequency and severity of back pain (who hasn’t experienced back pain during a taxing time?) What’s more, Harvard Health reports, back pain can spur more stress, thus starting a vicious cycle.
“When your physical movement is limited, this can cause psychological distress, and the psychological distress can, in return, worsen the pain,” says Srini Pallay, MD. Additionally—and understandably so—your “personal health beliefs and coping strategies can influence both your level of distress and course of the pain,” he says. “For instance, if you are anxiety-prone, expect the worst, and have catastrophic thinking, this can make the pain far worse. That’s because those psychological vulnerabilities can change your brain and intensify the pain.”
Cognitive behavioral therapy (which can help you become aware of and reframe negative thoughts), mindfulness-based stress reduction, a good, old-fashioned venting session with your friends, even a walk in nature—all can mitigate the stress that may cause or increase back pain. Then take a deep breath and try to relax: 90% of back-pain episodes are resolved within six weeks.
†These statements have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease.