When it comes to health problems, back pain is one of the most common ailments among Americans, with up to 80 percent of the adult population suffering from it at least once during their lifetime. And because if affects so many people, it’s a hot discussion topic in our homes, with our friends and coworkers and especially online. As a spine surgeon in practice for more than two decades, I continue to encounter patients, particularly in this digital age where so much information is at our fingertips (much of it wrong), who believe back-pain wives tales – misinformation or concepts that have long been debunked by scientific research. So, though this is by no means an exhaustive list of myths I’ve heard repeatedly over the years, I’m sharing some big ones. This information may not provide relief from physical pain, but it might save you from some mental anguish so that you can start feeling better, faster.
1. It’s not that big a deal. Here’s the thing: The acute back pain you’re experiencing after a particularly intense day of gardening? It’s probably not going to end up being a big deal … eventually. But that doesn’t mean you should ignore it, or worse, continue doing strenuous activities while you’re experiencing it. For acute or occasional episodes of back pain, icing it quickly after the episode has begun, taking over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications (if these have been okay-ed for you by your doctor) and some gentle stretching can be enough to help the pain resolve on its own – usually within a few days.
Now, there are some types of back pain that should never be ignored or “shrugged off” as no big deal. If you’re experiencing back pain that’s also accompanied by numbness or tingling, trouble urinating, weakness in the limbs, fever or weight loss, these symptoms all warrant urgent medical attention. If you’ve sustained a traumatic injury (falling on a hard surface or a car accident, for example) it’s imperative that you seek immediate medical evaluation from a trained spine health professional.
When you’re experiencing back pain not associated with any other urgent medical symptoms that’s lasted for three months or longer, it’s considered “chronic” back pain and also warrants a trip to a spine health professional for evaluation. The spine is kind of like a row of dominoes. When the health of one part of it fails, it can cause a chain reaction and put other parts at risk. Don’t wait to have it looked at.
2. Lay low for maximum relief. Bed rest for back pain? It’s an expired prescription. Newer research has demonstrated that this type of “treatment” for back pain has a very limited role in actually healing it. In moderation, bed rest may give you relief when the back pain you’re experiencing seems to worsen with long periods or standing or sitting. But other than that, total bed rest doesn’t do much to help you heal. In fact, too much bed rest can actually make back pain worse. It can contribute to loss of muscle strength (essential for optimal spine health) and doesn’t do much for your sense of well-being, either. Clinical studies have shown that a return to normal activities, with periods of rest as needed, are more beneficial in helping you return sooner to pain-free function.
3. If you seek treatment, it will lead to surgery. This spine surgeon is here to tell you that the vast majority of back pain episodes will not require surgery to address the pain. Period. But here’s what I can also tell you: When people believe this myth, it can take them longer to address and seek medical attention for the problem that is causing the pain. Not only can this lead to prolonged pain, but it can also make a problem worse and, sometimes, that can lead to surgery. For those who have a spine condition (a deformity like scoliosis, for example) that may warrant surgery, waiting too long to seek care can result in prolonged pain, a reduced quality of life and a decrease in options to address the condition that is causing the pain. Don’t wait. A reputable surgeon won’t just jump to surgery as the first point of treatment in addressing back pain for most patients.
When in doubt about the source of your back pain or what you should do about it, take caution when you seek advice from friends or family (though they are likely well-intentioned) or when you page “Dr. Google.” What you receive can be misleading, inaccurate and in some cases – just plain dangerous. Your best bet for back pain that seems to need medical attention is to find a reputable specialist whom you can trust to get you back on the right track for pain-free living.