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New Back Pain Guidelines May Lead to Relief

If you suffer from low back pain, you may be one of many who are looking for relief. The National Institute of Health reports back pain is one of society’s most common medical problems, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report it is the second leading cause of disability in the U.S. One study in the journal Neurologic Clinics estimates as many as 80 percent of people experience back pain.

“Back pain is very common, especially as people age into their 30s and 40s,” said J. Christopher Noonan, MD, an orthopedic spine surgeon at Samaritan Neurosurgery in Corvallis. “Unfortunately there’s a lot of misinformation about what to do about back pain.”

Many back pain treatment options exist, but not all of them work. To that end, the American College of Physicians (ACP) recently updated its back pain recommendations guide. Based on a review of more than 150 current high-quality research studies, the guide identifies treatments that reduce pain and improve function and quality of life.

For acute (pain which lasts less than four weeks) and sub acute (pain which lasts less than 12 weeks) low back pain, the condition often resolves at home without needing to see a doctor. The treatment with the strongest evidence of success was applying heat wraps. Other recommendations included massage, acupuncture and spinal manipulation.

For those with chronic low back pain lasting more than 12 weeks, the treatment with the strongest evidence of success was exercise. Other recommendations include physical therapy and muscle strengthening exercises, tai chi, yoga, cognitive behavioral therapy and progressive relaxation.

If you need to take an over-the-counter painkiller for a few days, choose ibuprofen (Advil) or naproxen (Aleve). Acetaminophen (Tylenol) was found not to be effective.

Ultrasound, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) and Kinesio taping were also found not to be effective treatment and were not recommended.

This version of the back pain recommendations strongly encourages and supports nondrug treatments first, and the addition of non-traditional methods such as tai chi expands treatment options for people.

“In many cases, back pain can be resolved without formal treatment, let alone surgery or drugs,” said Dr. Noonan. “Work with your primary care provider to explore the options that work best for your situation.”

To help reduce your risk of back pain in the future, Dr. Noonan shares these tips:

  • Exercise to keep your body strong. Low impact aerobic exercise can improve overall muscle tone and endurance. Stretching keeps muscles limber, and strengthening abdominal and back muscles supports the spine.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Extra weight can put a strain on back muscles.
  • Use good posture while sitting and standing to reduce stress on your muscles.
  • Bend at the knees and use your legs to lift heavy items. Avoid lifting items that are too heavy.
  • Don’t purchase back pain products such as shoe inserts, special mattresses or equipment unless it makes you more comfortable.  
  • Quit smoking if you do, as smokers have more spine issues and problems than non-smokers.