Before you reach for that snow shovel this winter, think first about protecting your back. When you do battle with Old Man Winter, or tackle any other kind of heavy lifting at home or on the job, do everything you can to reduce the chance of injury.
About 80% of the population develops back problems at some time in their lives. Back pain can range from a dull, constant ache to a sudden, sharp pain that makes it hard to move. It can start quickly if you fall or lift something too heavy, or it can get worse slowly. Discs that sit between the vertebrae of the spine can rupture or break down. Muscles can strain or tear.
A wide variety of factors can increase your risk of back problems: getting older; being out of shape or overweight; having a job that requires lifting, pushing or pulling while twisting your spine; having poor posture; smoking; and having a disease or condition that causes back pain. Race can also be a risk factor. For example, African American women are 2-3 times more likely than white women to have part of the lower spine slip out of place.
You can help prevent back pain by standing up straight and minimizing the amount of heavy lifting you do. When the snow drifts beckon, or you must lift something else that’s heavy, bend your legs and keep your back straight.
Exercising and keeping your back muscles strong are among the best ways to minimize your risk of back pain. Maintain a healthy weight or shed some pounds if you weigh too much. And maintain strong bones by making sure to get enough calcium and vitamin D every day.
If you do experience back pain, treatment depends on what kind of pain it is. Acute pain, which starts quickly and lasts less than 6 weeks, usually gets better without any treatment. Pain relievers can help ease the pain until it goes away.
Chronic pain, which lasts for more than 3 months, is much less common. Hot or cold packs may bring temporary relief but don’t fix the cause. Behavioral changes, such as learning to lift properly and exercising more, can help in the long term, as can getting more sleep, improving your diet and quitting smoking.
Your doctor might recommend medications or suggest you try complementary and alternative medical treatments, such as manipulation of the spine, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (mild electrical pulses), acupuncture (thin needles used for pain relief) and acupressure (pressure applied to certain places in the body).
Most people with back pain don’t need surgery, even if the pain is chronic. Surgery is reserved for situations in which other treatments don’t work.
Back pain can also be a sign of many other medical conditions, including arthritis, pregnancy, kidney stones, infections, tumors and stress. That’s why it’s a good idea to see a doctor if your pain is particularly bad or lasts for more than a few days.