Back pain is always worrisome, and you’re liable to immediately think that something serious is wrong. When you share your back-pain woes with your friends and family, you’ll get lots of advice on how to treat it. “Use a heating pad,” some will say, or “Take it easy for a while and get lots of bed rest.” Others will recommend that you take the pressure off your back and avoid lifting until everything feels right again. Many will urge you to see a doctor right away, you probably have a slipped disc.
Are these snippets good advice, or are folks just perpetuating the same old wrong advice that ultimately leads to even worse problems? These well-meaning loved ones are, more often than not, giving you suggestions that have been handed down over decades, but medical science has already proved wrong. Here are 5 myths about back pain that you need to ignore.
Most Back Pain Means Spinal Injury
People who don’t know medicine generally assume that back pain, especially when it comes on suddenly, is serious and even life-threatening. The assumption that back pain means a problem with your spine, though, simply isn’t true. The second most common reason Americans go to the doctor, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, is low back pain. Sharp back pain, though, isn’t usually all that serious.
One of the worst sorts of pain, backaches, aren’t always as serious as we assume
In fact, Dr. Kaliq Chang, an interventional pain medicine specialist, says sudden sharp back pain is most commonly caused by an injury to the muscles and ligaments supporting the back, not the spine itself. He says that sudden back pain “might be due to muscle spasms, or to a tear or strain in back muscles and ligaments.” You should probably still see a doctor, but there’s no need to assume the worst and think you’ve injured your spine.
Avoid Heavy Lifting to Save Yourself from More Back Injury
Yes, you can injure your back through heavy lifting, but that doesn’t mean you should avoid it. According to Dr. James Rainville, assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School, only 5 percent of herniated discs and sciatica comes from heavy lifting. In truth, people seem to be more prone to experience new-onset back pain doing something trivial and easy, like reaching for a pencil or bending over to brush their teeth.
Heavy lifting isn’t as common a cause of back pain as you may think
Back pain, Dr. Rainville says, usually results from tissue failure. Age-related deterioration causes this, and while heavy lifting can sometimes trigger injury, it’s more common for light exertion to cause it.
To prevent such deterioration, doctors recommend regular exercise. Most moderate types of workouts will help reduce back pain, but studies show that core-strengthening exercise is the most effective.
Plenty of Bed Rest Will Help Ease Your Back Pain
Once upon a time, bed rest was considered a key part of treating back pain. It seems to make sense since lying in bed gives you a break from the agony. Standing or sitting makes it worse, so bed rest is often thought to be one of the best treatments. In fact, Harvard Medical School says that too much bed rest can actually make your back pain get worse, not better.
Bed rest isn’t always your best option for treating back pain
Instead, you should limit the time you are lying down to just a few hours at a time, and don’t use bed rest for more than a day or two. Too much bed rest will trigger other problems, like allowing your muscles to lose their conditioning. You could develop digestive issues, blood clots, and worsening mental health.
Returning to normal activities as early as possible, with rest as need, is what the doctor should be ordering. Clinical trials have shown this to be better than staying home from work on bed rest because the activity actually spurs your body on to heal itself more effectively.
Move Less to Alleviate Back Pain
A man went to the doctor, saying he’d broken his arm in three places. “Don’t go to those places,” the doctor replied. The mentality of pain avoidance as a way to promote healing used to be the de facto standard advice, but that’s simply not true in all cases. Yes, you should limit your movement when your doctor tells you to. However, cutting out your daily workout because of low back pain isn’t necessarily the right answer.
Treadmills, exercise bikes, and other aerobic exercises can be good back pain treatments
Since we’ve already learned that most sudden back pain comes from injured muscles or ligaments, it makes sense that strengthening those same parts of your body will help prevent serious problems. Studies have proven that physical therapy slows muscle and tissue deterioration, improving the body’s strength and conditioning. This helps prevent back issues from getting worse. Light aerobic activity, such as jogging, walking, or using a stationary bicycle, is the best form of exercise to help reduce back pain, according to Penn Medicine sports medicine doctor Alexis Tingan.
Surgery Is Your Best Option for Treating Back Pain
Spinal fusion might be one of the most common surgeries for back pain, but that doesn’t mean it should be your first choice. In fact, the evidence is increasingly proving that these procedures typically only reduce back pain by around 50 percent over a few years’ time. From what Dr. Steven Atlas, of Harvard Medical School, has seen, “the indications for fusion are few and far between.”
These tools might not be the best way to treat your back pain
Instead, Dr. Atlas recommends keeping to the less invasive measures of exercise, physical therapy and heat/cold treatment can be just as useful for treating back pain, without the risks that come along with surgical options.
Patience and Listening to Your Body Are Your Best Choices
Rather than jumping onto the operating table and getting your back cut open, your best decision for dealing with any sort of back pain is to listen to your body and be patient. While surgery, bed rest, and restricted movement might be what your spine or the muscles and ligaments supporting it need, that’s usually not the case.
Be patient with yourself, listen to your doctor, but also be ready to go for a second opinion if your physician recommends following in the footsteps of those who began these 5 myths. Treating back pain doesn’t come with cookie-cutter solutions, because every case is different. Medical science is increasingly proving these myths wrong, so make sure you’re really doing what’s best for your back pain.