Back pain is one of the most common reasons people see doctors. / Leon Lawrence III for USA WEEKEND
Back pain strikes 80% of Americans at some point in their lives. It’s one of the most common reasons people see doctors and is a leading cause of disability. How to make the pain go away depends on its nature. Acute back pain — the kind that comes on suddenly and often leaves quickly — might not need much more than a few weeks of over-the-counter pain relievers. If back pain lingers for three months or more, it’s considered chronic and may require targeted treatments — from hot or cold packs and behavior changes to exercises, prescription drugs, alternative therapies and, in a few cases, surgery.
Here are three common treatments, and a peek at potential future options:
Drugstore standards like acetaminophen, ibuprofen and naproxen are all effective at easing back pain. Some patients may need prescription narcotics or muscle relaxants; certain antidepressants also have been shown to relieve chronic back pain. Work closely with your doctor to determine your best course of action.
New findings: The science is preliminary, but for people who suffer herniated, or “slipped,” discs, researchers believe bacterial infections may play a role, so antibiotics could help relieve the pain.
Exercise is usually not recommended for acute back pain, but it can help ease or eliminate the chronic kind. A physical therapist can apply heat treatments or electrical stimulation to reduce pain and then suggest specific and safe exercises to help increase flexibility, reduce stiffness and strengthen your back and abs.
New findings: A small study out of Israel suggests simply walking two to three times a week, for 20 to 40 minutes, can alleviate lower back pain as effectively as muscle-strengthening programs that require specialized equipment.
If meds and other non-surgical methods don’t relieve pain, your doctor may inject cortisone into the space around your spinal cord to help decrease nerve inflammation. In some cases, an anesthetic and steroid medication can be injected into or near joints where the vertebrae connect to one another. Spinal injections are common, but some experts question their effectiveness.
New findings: Harvesting bone marrow and then re-injecting concentrated forms of it may help some people with low back pain; more research is needed to determine if therapy is safe and effective.