Neel Anand, MD demystifies common myths about back pain. Dr. Anand is the Director of Orthopedic Spine Surgery at the Cedars-Sinai Institute for Spinal Disorders in Los Angeles.
Your mom wasn’t totally wrong; hunching can certainly be bad for your back. But the opposite is true too. Sitting up straight for too long without a break can also cause strain. If you work in an office setting, make sure your chair is at a height where your knees are at a 90-degree angle, your feet can rest flat on the floor, and you have proper lower back support. Make sure to stand up, stretch, and take a quick walk several times a day to keep from getting stiff or causing injury.
Myth #2: You need the firmest mattress possible.
Back pain sufferers can actually experience greater pain if their mattress is too firm because it puts more pressure on heavy points like the hips and shoulders. Conversely, a mattress that is too soft could lack the support necessary to allow proper movement. In both cases, the person wakes up stiff and in pain. Studies show that a medium-firm mattress offers an ideal amount of support to help prevent further injury.
Myth #3: Back pain is caused by exercise.
A survey by the North American Spine Society revealed this as the number one misconception about back pain. Sure, if you aren’t active all week and then try to win your town’s annual mud-run, you could easily experience injury. You can help prevent back pain by preparing your body for the shock of everyday movements and especially more intense workouts by preceding physical activity with good stretching and warm-up exercises to help wake up your muscles. (Take a cue from professional athletes who factor stretching and warm ups into their daily routine.) Strengthen your back by strengthening your core and trunk. That means exercises focused on strengthening your stomach and back muscles as well as cardio to improve your overall fitness.
Myth #4: Back pain is an unavoidable side-effect of getting older.
Getting older doesn’t mean life has to be painful. While there are aches and pains that come with an aging body, staying physically fit (see Myth #3) through exercises that keep our bodies strong, flexible and limber are a huge benefit. There are so many exercise options to try including yoga, Pilates, T’ai Chi and treatment options ranging from acupuncture to physical therapy to advanced treatment options–both nonsurgical and surgical. Bottom line is that back pain is not something you should have to live with.
Myth #5: Back pain can appear out of nowhere.
Back pain sufferers often claim one wrong twist or simply bending over caused their injury. But that event was likely the result of many other factors. Overdoing a workout, using poor technique while lifting heavy objects, bad posture, and especially weight gain can all put strain on the spine and lead to seemingly “out of nowhere” spasms. Sometimes the issue is more serious, as with disc and joint disorders. A spine doctor can help pinpoint the source of your pain.
Myth #6: A hot bath can bring relief but not right away
There are few things as relaxing as sinking into a nice warm bathtub, but doing so after injuring your back could actually make your situation worse by increasing inflammation. Doctors recommend applying ice to the area for 20 minutes at a time during the first two or three days in order to decrease inflammation and pain. One caveat: people who suffer from chronic back pain without inflammation can find relief with a warm bath. Play it safe and check with your doctor for the best treatment.
Myth #7: If I see a doctor, I’ll probably have surgery.
Most people will experience some degree of back pain in their lifetime, but the overwhelming majority will find relief through simple changes like exercise, over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medicines, physical therapy, or even just by waiting it out. In fact, spine surgery is only recommended for a very small percentage of patients after all other methods of treatment have proven futile. These patients often suffer from more degenerative spine or joint issues that cause chronic pain. Whether you understand the source of your back pain or not, a fear of surgery should never prevent you from seeking medical help.
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