Although back pain is very common, don’t treat it as an inevitable part of aging, says Neil Patel, MD, Medical Director of Pain Management and Palliative Care at Nyack Hospital. “Talk to your doctor about what steps you can take so your back pain doesn’t get worse,” he says. “If your pain is severe, or if it hasn’t gotten any better after several weeks, don’t ignore it. There are many treatments available that can provide relief.”
The most common causes of back pain include:
- Herniated discs are often caused by overuse injuries or trauma to the spine. They also can develop as a normal part of aging. Most herniated discs can be treated without surgery.
- Spinal stenosis occurs when the spinal canal narrows. This places pressure on the spinal cord. In most cases, spinal stenosis occurs as a natural part of aging, and wear and tear on the spine. Many cases of spinal stenosis can be treated without surgery, using non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to reduce swelling and pain.
- Osteoarthritis can affect the spine, causing back pain. It may result in spinal stiffness in the morning, which often decreases with rest or after exercise. There is no cure for spinal osteoarthritis, but there are a number of treatment options for the pain, including medications, physical therapy, exercise, heat/cold therapy and rest.
“We start with conservative, non-drug treatments,” Dr. Patel says. Non-drug treatment options for back pain include exercise—such as yoga, Pilates or tai chi—as well as massage therapy. Your doctor may also recommend physical therapy to decrease back pain, increase function, and teach you how to prevent future back problems. Heat and ice may also help relieve back pain.
If non-drug treatments aren’t effective, the doctor may recommend:
- Anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen or naproxen
- Creams, ointments, and salves rubbed onto the skin over the site of pain
- Drugs that treat nerve pain, such as Lyrica or Neurontin
- An injection. There are a number of different types of injections used to treat back pain, depending on the location and the cause, including epidural steroid injections
- Radiofrequency ablation, a therapy that uses radio waves to create an electrical current that delivers heat to targeted nerve tissues
The best ways to prevent back pain are to exercise often to keep you back and stomach muscles strong, and avoid heavy lifting. If you have to lift something heavy, bend your legs and keep your back straight. “If you are overweight, losing weight can help prevent back pain, or ease back pain if you already have it,” Dr. Patel says.