Most people experience back pain at some point in their life. In fact, back and neck pain are among the most common complaints made to primary-care physicians and orthopedic specialists.
“It just happens with the aging process for most people,” says orthopedic surgeon Dr. Donald Bassman. “And it doesn’t take much to set off the process.” Lifting incorrectly, a sudden twist or movement, and exercising too intensely or with incorrect form are just a few of the triggers that can lead to chronic back pain. Joints—especially hips, knees and shoulders—also are susceptible to chronic pain caused by arthritis, overuse or acute injuries.
If chronic back or joint pain occurs, the best strategy often is to just keep on keeping on, says Dr. Helen Blake of Regeneration Orthopedics. “Staying active and engaged in life's activities yields significant benefits to our physical and emotional well-being,” she says. “I urge my patients to have realistic expectations of what their bodies can do, given their symptoms.”
Bassman and Blake recommend several home remedies, such as heat to help relax tight or spastic muscles. Ice can be beneficial when used after exercise to help decrease inflammation. “There are certainly over-the-counter medications, like acetaminophen (Tylenol), naproxen sodium (Aleve) and ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin) that can definitely provide some benefit and usually have very little risk of harm, but I encourage all patients to consult with their doctors before starting any medications or supplements in case there are interactions with medications the patients may be taking,” Blake says.
Physical therapy also can be helpful as patients are taught how to stretch and use other techniques to help reduce pain. But chronic pain that doesn’t respond to conservative measures may need more intensive, invasive treatments.
“If the pain just hasn’t gotten any better, you proceed further in a workup, such as ordering an MRI,” Bassman says. “If there are specific areas that look like they need to be treated, there are injections that can be given by physicians under X-ray control so specific areas are hit with a cortisone preparation to reduce pain and irritation in that area. That does work, and we do a lot of those.” Beyond that, prescription medications and surgical interventions are available, but Bassman notes that surgery typically is considered a last resort when other treatments have failed to provide relief.
Blake adds a number of lifestyle and holistic practices to the pain-relieving arsenal. For instance, “aerobic exercise like walking helps your body bring oxygen and nutrition to your muscles,” she says. “This can help reduce stiffness and rebuild your stamina. I advise starting with short bursts of walking and building from there.” Swimming or water aerobics in a heated pool, tai chi and pilates are other good activity choices. In addition to relieving existing pain, exercise is a preventive measure, Blake adds.
“Part of prevention also extends into the diet we consume,” Blake says. “Maintaining a healthy diet not only helps to keep your weight in check, but the choices of the food you eat can influence the amount of inflammation present in your body. Omega-3 fatty acids have significant health benefits to people who suffer chronic pain. Eating it in the form of salmon, flaxseed, omega-3 fortified eggs and walnuts can lead to benefits. A diet that is heavy on vegetables also is heavy on antioxidants, and antioxidants can have powerful effects on the way that our body deals with disease and inflammation.”
Although we can’t stop aging and totally protect our bodies from wear and tear, chronic pain does not have to define your existence. “Don’t hesitate to reach out to a specialist for help,” Blake urges. “There is a whole lot more to treating pain than handing out medications. It’s about treating the whole individual—mind, body and spirit.”