Back Pain: Treat at Home or Time to See the Doctor?

Back pain is one of the most common medical conditions and will  affect more than 8 in 10 of us during our lifetime: that’s more than 80% of us!  Most of us, will experience what is called acute back pain that occurs usually from a pulled muscle while twisting or lifting something. This type of pain usually resolves on its own within a few weeks. Some will also experience more serious back and spine conditions. The type of discomfort ranges from a dull backache to sharp pain.


Chronic back pain is defined as back pain that lasts longer than 3 months. Knowing when to see a doctor for back pain is only part of the challenge. Many people continue to function with mild backaches going  about their day and just bear with it. Others find relief with at-home care measures, go see a chiropractor, or their primary care.  But, it’s important to know the signs and symptoms of a more serious back problem that requires a professional medical diagnosis and treatment.


Common Causes of Back Pain

Two of the most common reasons for back pain are muscle strains or ligament sprains. These can happen when something heavy is lifted, or with poor posture  while lifting or twisting. Obesity can put strain on your back and make it hurt.  More serious causes of the condition include a ruptured disc or fractured vertebrae.


Possible causes of back pain include:

  • Herniated disc, when the soft center, or the nucleus, of spinal disc “slips” out of place. This can cause pain in 2 ways:
    1. Direct compression of a spinal nerve (pinched nerve)
    2. Chemical nerve irritation from the substances leaking from the disc common after annular tears (the surrounding part of a disc)

  • Arthritis of the facet joints of the spine
  • Osteoporosis, a disease that thins and weakens bones including the vertebrae
  • Sciatica, or pain along the path of the sciatic nerve
  • Scoliosis, a type of curvature of the spine
  • Stenosis, a narrowing of spaces in the spinal column or nerve passages. This can involve the spinal canal itself, or the passages called foramen where the spinal nerves exit.
  • Sacroiliitis, inflammation of the joint between the pelvis and lumbar spine
  • Ankylosing spondylitis (rare)
  • Osteomyelitis, a bone infection (rare)


Back Pain Treatment at Home

The good news is that, given time, most back pain gets better on its own.

  • Over-the-counter pain medications may help ease your symptoms.
  • Hot or cold packs to reduce your back pain. Both heat and cold stimulate the nerves (which can ease pain); so, use whichever works best for you. Use your heat or cold pack for about 15 to 20 minutes at a time. Don’t apply the heat or cold treatment directly to skin.
    • heat relaxes tight muscles.
    • ice reduces swelling.
  • Limited bed rest. Once the mainstay of treatment for back pain, bed rest has fallen out of favor to avoid muscles from becoming stiff. Try to limit it to a few hours at a time and for no more than one or two days.
  • Complementary therapies including chiropractic spinal adjustment, acupuncture, massage, yoga and tai chi


When to See a Doctor for Back Pain?

If your pain is severe or constant, lasts more than two weeks, keeps you from participating in your usual activities, or interrupts your sleep, see a doctor. You should also seek medical care for back pain if you have:

  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Constant or intense pain, especially at night or when you lie down
  • Pain that spreads down your leg, especially below your knee
  • Weakness, numbness or tingling in your legs
  • Swelling or redness on your back
  • Cancer, infection, or suspected fracture that may affect your spine

Call 911 for emergency medical care if your back pain is the result of a car crash, a bad fall, or a severe sports injury, or if it is causing bowel or bladder problems.

Back pain can disrupt our lives and even become debilitating, but in most cases, it goes away on its own. If your back pain is increasing or not improving, or you have any of the symptoms described above, consult someone like us at Southwest Pain Management, who can advise you on treatment options.

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