Nearly 80 percent of adults experience some form of back pain at least once in their lifetime. With symptoms that range from dull discomfort to sharp pain or radiating numbness, back pain has many causes. And with the predictable rise of back injuries during winter weather, now is a good time to think about ways to prevent back pain - and to stay out of the ER.
Let's start with the basics. The term back pain is a broad phrase that has various meanings. Because the back is so complex, pain can be caused by a host of problems or injuries. If you experience back pain, it's best to consult with your health care provider, who is in the best position to diagnose your symptoms and offer a corrective course of treatment.
Causes of back pain can include: mechanical problems, such as when a spinal disc deteriorates due to age or overwork; injuries, such as sprains, fractures, muscle tears or ligament damage; acquired conditions, such as arthritis, scoliosis, pregnancy or kidney stones; and, rarely, infection or tumors.
In addition to the causes of back pain, it's important to understand the risk factors - both uncontrollable and controllable - that can increase the likelihood for developing back pain.
Uncontrollable risk factors include age and gender. Men and people middle-aged or older tend to suffer more back pain. Also, having a personal or family history of back pain can suggest future troubles. Individuals born with spine problems and those who have had compression fractures of the spine or have undergone back surgery also have greater risk. And pregnancy is considered an uncontrollable risk factor for back pain in women.
Some risk factors, however, can be controlled. Controllable factors include a sedentary lifestyle, being overweight, smoking, poor posture, performing strenuous work without proper movement or body mechanics, and emotional stress.
To prevent back pain, individuals should focus on reducing or eliminating controllable risk factors. Quitting smoking and maintaining a healthy weight are beneficial for everyone. And even mild regular exercise can help keep your back healthy.
Decide which controllable risk factors affect you, and make the changes needed to keep you and your back healthy. Many insurers like Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania (BCNEPA) offer their members wellness and support programs to help them make such changes. At BCNEPA, for example, our Blue Health Solutions program is available to all covered individuals to help them lose weight, quit smoking or simply start down the path of a healthier lifestyle.
There are also simple precautions you can take in the winter months when slips, falls and shoveling snow can lead to back pain.
When you venture onto ice or snow, wear shoes with firm grip soles. Spread sand, ashes or other non-slip material on walkways, and be smart about shoveling. Push snow with a shovel, if possible. If you must lift it, bend at the knees, take small scoops and throw the snow forward. Avoid twisting or throwing over your shoulder.
As with any medical condition, speak with your health care provider if you have questions about back pain. By being smart and knowing your risks, you can prevent back pain from getting in the way of the winter activities that you enjoy.
Dr. John Viteritti, DO, is an emergency room physician and Medical Director for Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania.