There are some conditions in which myths prevail as truth; back pain is one such condition. Living with pain is hard enough, though, and all the back pain facts in the world won’t change that. But by sharing this list with your loved ones, you might be able to help them learn more about your condition and how they can help.
1. Lower back pain is the most common source of pain, seriously
The most commonly cited source of pain for those missing days of work is lower back pain. Back pain is both common and severe, affecting as much as 80% of the U.S. adult population at some point during their lives. Meanwhile, lower back pain ranks as the top cause of disability worldwide, according to the American Chiropractic Association. People spend at least $50 billion annually on medications and treatments in hopes of feeling better. This is the reason why sharing these back pain facts is so important.
2: You’re not just living with back pain, except on those days that you are
Maybe it’s an old injury that keeps flaring up, or maybe it is a new strain or exercise regimen that has you feeling like back pain is just a part of waking up every morning. But too many probably already think of your back pain like it’s always going to be part of you. What others don’t know is that you’re working to make your back pain better, using many of the back pain facts and techniques we’ll be talking about below. You’re trying, and that’s hard enough on its own.
And then again, some days, just surviving with the pain is actually enough. Seriously. Back pain makes you slow down and take life one day at a time.
3. You know how many treatments exist to help
While it’s true that some types of back pain are harder to alleviate than others, pain specialists and researchers have many different tools at their disposal to help reduce or even eliminate back pain. You’ve probably talked about loads of them. A lot. (If you haven’t, we have some suggestions for treatments below.)
Your well-meaning relatives probably don’t realize just how many back pain facts you know. And it’s nice of them to make suggestions, but ultimately it is up to you and your doctor to work together to find which one works best for the back pain you have.
4. Just as many women suffer from back pain as men
More men than women in the U.S. tend to have blue-collar jobs that require heavy lifting and physical activity. So it stands to reason that men experience back pain at greater rates than women, right?
Wrong. Men and women have roughly the same rates of back pain at all ages, across race and income. Back pain is one physical ailment that is truly equal opportunity. It doesn’t matter if you are male or female, black or white, rich or poor, approximately 80-90% of people will experience back pain in their lifetime.
Rates of back pain within an age group tend to rise as that group gets older simply due to back pain conditions related to aging, such as osteoarthritis (considered a “wear and tear” condition). Back pain does not discriminate whether you are lifting babies at home or boxes in a warehouse, and it certainly doesn’t care if you are male or female.
Differences in the quality and quantity of care for back pain based on gender, race, and income certainly exist, but as far as incidence goes, back pain incidence affects everyone equally.
5. Daily activities can put a strain on your back just as bad as an accident
It seems like people who participate in extreme sports (or even regular sports like professional baseball and golf) would have more back pain, or that most back pain is caused by serious injury due to car crashes or other accidents. However, the vast majority of back pain is caused by misuse, overuse, or inadequate use.
Of course professional athletes experience back pain, but there is a far greater incidence of back pain in “weekend warriors,” those who play an impromptu game of softball at the backyard barbecue or go on a golf outing once every month or so. Professional athletes are trained and conditioned and use their bodies on a regular basis. Some soreness or strain over time may be normal, but in general, their bodies are used to physical activity. Pain specialists see more back pain cases due to misuse (working the back incorrectly, like lifting boxes with the back instead of the legs) or overuse (especially when combined with inadequate use).
The best way to prevent these types of injuries is to stay strong and active on a regular basis. If you go from spending most of your day sitting at a desk and most of your night sitting on a couch to a full weekend of touch football, chances are good that your back will sustain some type of injury. Getting at least 150 minutes of exercise a week (and including some core strengthening) will help you maintain overall good health while protecting the health of your back.
6. Exercise can actually help alleviate back pain
This is one of the most useful and beneficial back pain facts. Remember, back pain often results from poor posture or weak muscles, and so engaging in exercises that remedy these problems could help reduce discomfort. Top exercises include yoga, walking, Pilates, and swimming.
Some yoga poses strategically target the muscles supporting the lumbar spine, and others build strength in the core muscles, which promote stability in the entire body. A strong back and core supports good posture, so strength building helps to reduce back pain in more ways than one. Yoga is special because it includes a mindfulness component that reduces stress, which could provide further back pain relief.
Pilates is another wonderful way to minimize discomfort. There are a few types of Pilates, one that solely takes place on the floor and another that uses a special machine. Many Pilates movements resemble yoga postures, and people taking Pilates classes will enjoy similar physical benefits of stronger back and core muscles.
Swimming is also highly recommended for back pain. It strengthens muscles despite its low-impact nature. People with joint pain will likely find that swimming is both easy on the body and a rigorous workout.
7. But, some exercises can seriously worsen back pain
That being said, when exercising to improve strength and reduce pain, you know to play it safe and avoid activities that could make things worse.
The top back pain-triggering activity is anything involving a forward fold. That includes yoga or Pilates movements. If you’re in an exercise class and the teacher asks you to go into a forward fold, be sure to bend your knees and keep your back flat. Bending the lower back compresses spinal discs and could exacerbate pain or cause injury. By bending the knees and only bending over as far as you’re able to keep the back flat, you’ll reduce the chances for worsening pain.
Hamstring stretches also frequently involve forward folds. If you want to stretch the hamstrings, opt for variations that keep the back flat on the floor. Lift the legs into the air and stretch the legs toward the ceiling instead of having the back lower toward the floor while standing.
Sit-ups are also generally contraindicated for those with back pain because the exercise may strain lower back muscles. Instead of sit-ups, strengthen the abdominals and core with stability exercises like a plank, which involves holding the top of a push-up.
So, when your well-meaning friend insists you try a sit-up challenge, let them know that you’ve already found exercises that work way better for you and your back.
8. Certain foods influence your back pain severity
The foods you eat every day can provide nourishment and promote less pain. However, if you’ve been keeping a food and pain journal, you also already know that certain unhealthy food choices make you feel worse.
The top foods for less back pain include broccoli, cherries, onion, and garlic. Broccoli contains powerful Vitamin K, which helps to strengthen bones and decrease the risk of back injury. Cherries contain potent anti-inflammatory compounds that may actually strike at the root of pain. Garlic is another anti-inflammatory food. Researchers believe its inflammation-reducing compounds may be the same ones contained by over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen. Onions are also a potent anti-inflammatory food. As a bonus, they add a delicious taste to many foods. Ask your family to include more of those in their meals if they’re cooking for you.
9. Losing weight may help reduce back pain, to an extent
Excess weight is linked to an increased risk for herniated discs, absolutely. And any more stress or strain on your back could increase your pain. However, it’s not a catchall.
A sedentary lifestyle is the larger culprit here. It ups the risk for poor posture and weak muscles, which contribute to back pain. Participating in exercises that help to build strength and reduce weight supports a healthy back. Eating a healthy diet rich in fruit, vegetables, and healthy grains also reduces inflammation. This helps to minimize pain. You may not want to focus on losing weight exclusively to manage your back pain, and that’s okay.
10. Back pain and depression are linked
These two conditions may not be the first connected health problems that come to mind. But research shows that back pain may lead to depression and vice versa, that depression increases the risk for back pain. It’s one of the most important back pain facts to keep in mind when talking to your loved ones.
The daily stress of living with back pain, as well as the difficulty of performing daily life tasks may make someone depressed. Meanwhile, depression often materializes in the physical body as pain. In fact, aches and pains that do not respond to treatment are considered one of the symptoms of depression, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
If you’re living with back pain, you already have our respect
Living with back pain can seriously impact your daily life. It can make it harder to walk your dog, hold your child, or put the groceries away. And that’s on the small scale. Living with back pain means making daily choices about how far you’re willing to drive in the car, what jobs you’re able to take, and how much time you can give to your family. It’s hard, and you have our respect just for the journey you’ve already taken with pain.
Need help treating your back pain?
If you still need help and suggestions for treating your back pain, complementary and alternative treatment options could help. These are best used alongside diet and exercise changes. Options include:
- Complementary medicine: Acupuncture, biofeedback, and mindfulness meditation are three types of complementary medical approaches to back pain. They have been shown to have some success in pain relief. These complementary medical approaches are safe and have very limited side effects.
- Injections: In addition to offering pain relief, injections can be a great diagnostic tool for pain specialists. Facet injections and epidural steroid injections both use numbing agents like lidocaine to numb the affected nerve. Pain relief lasts for varying amounts of time. These procedures can be repeated up to three times a year. Importantly, these injections offer pain relief that allows patients to begin a course of exercise or physical therapy.
- Minimally-invasive surgical procedures: These can include procedures like continuous catheter nerve blocks or spinal cord stimulator implants. In general, these procedures are done under local anesthetic and have minimal side effects (if any). Better yet, they can be completed in less than 15 minutes.
- Chiropractic care: Chiropractic care has been proven to reduce healing times and relieve back pain with just one treatment. It also reduces medical costs and the chances of surgery when it is used as a first-line treatment for back pain.
- Surgical intervention: In the case of herniated discs, pain specialists may recommend a discectomy to remove herniated tissue. Spinal fusion may also help to relieve back pain. Many types of back pain do not require more extreme types of surgical intervention. In some cases, though, they can offer tremendous pain relief.
- Talk to a doctor: A doctor can help you diagnose the exact source of your pain. This can help you find better treatment options going forward.
Do you suffer from back pain? What back pain facts do you want your friends and family to know?