We all ask a lot from our backs. We bend, we lift, we slouch — it’s enough to make a back complain. According to the Mayo Clinic, four out of five adults experience back pain at some point in their lives. Two times out of three, injuries to muscles and ligaments in the lower back are to blame. These injuries are painful, but they can also be temporary. With proper care, most people can look forward to a quick recovery.
What are sprains and strains?
Healthy backs are strong and flexible, thanks in large part to the muscles that support the spine and the tough, fibrous ligaments that hold the vertebrae together. Unfortunately, these tissues can’t always handle the pressure of everyday life. Excess stress on your back can tear the muscles or ligaments. This is called back strain. Stretched ligaments can hurt even if they aren’t actually torn. This type of injury is called a sprain.
It doesn’t really matter whether you have a strain or a sprain. If your back hurts, it hurts. Your doctor may not even be able to tell the difference between the two. Fortunately, strategies for relief and prevention are equally successful for each type of injury.
Who is at risk for back sprains and strains?
Repetitive, forceful movements can easily injure the back. People who do a lot of bending, lifting, and twisting are usually no strangers to back pain. At the other end of the spectrum, people who rarely exercise are also prone to sprains and strains. Muscles and ligaments can become weak if they aren’t used. When an inactive person suddenly gets a notion to move a couch or shovel the sidewalk, an injury should hardly be surprising.
What are the symptoms of sprains and strains?
Sprains and strains usually cause a broad, aching pain across the lower back. The pain may be limited to one side or the other. You may have trouble bending your back or standing up completely straight. You may also have an occasional muscle spasm, especially when moving around or while sleeping. Spasms can turn the muscles in your back into a hard, painful knot.
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What can I do to relieve the pain?
Given time, most injuries to the ligaments and muscles will heal on their own within a couple of weeks. The key to recovery is staying active, within limits. Most people who try to return to their normal lives as soon as possible find that their ache gradually fades. Of course, some common sense is in order: If your job requires heavy lifting or other strenuous activities, you may have to take some time off to give your back a chance to heal.
If lying down feels good, you can try a day or two of bed rest. But too much time in bed can weaken your muscles and slow your recovery.
While waiting for your back to recover, you can ease the pain with over-the-counter NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) like aspirin or ibuprofen (such as Motrin or Advil). However, follow the dosage recommendations carefully and don’t take them any longer than necessary. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires warning labels on the drugs to inform users of the risk of cardiovascular and gastrointestinal problems. Talk to your doctor if you need to take pain relievers for more than several days.
A combination of cold and heat can also help ease back pain. The Mayo Clinic recommends putting a cold pack (a bag of ice wrapped in a cloth) on the sore spot soon after the pain first arises. Try the cold pack several times a day, 20 minutes at a time. When the pain starts to fade, 20 minutes with a heating pad can help loosen muscles and speed relief.
If these measures aren’t enough, consider massage therapy. One study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, followed patients between 20 and 70 years old and found that therapeutic massage may be more effective than back exercises for people with persistent low back pain.
A more recent review by the Cochrane Collaboration, which promotes evidence-based medicine, found that massage might be beneficial for patients with subacute back pain (lasting four to 12 weeks) and chronic (lasting longer than 12 weeks) low-back pain that is not attributed to a specific disease or condition. The review found massage appeared especially beneficial when combined with exercise and education.
Acupuncture has also proven effective in some studies.
What about using narcotics for back pain?
Research suggests narcotics are not effective against low back pain, according to Consumer Reports. In addition, the magazine warned, about 50 percent half of patients taking them have side effects such as difficulty breathing and symptoms such as