The below article is excerpted from Harvard Medical School’s Harvard Health Publishing Harvard Women’s Health Watch.
Back pain is one of the most common medical problems in the United States, according to the National Institutes of Health. It’s also a little strange as far as ailments go.
When you twist your ankle, you generally have pain that slowly goes away as the injury heals. Not so with back pain. Relief doesn’t seem to be linked to healing because the pain is usually unrelated to an injury. In fact, back pain often diminishes over time, even when there is an underlying problem like a herniated disc or arthritis, says Dr. James Rainville, assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School.
Adding to the mysteries of back pain is the fact that people tend to report more back pain in their 40s and 50s than they do as they get older. But back degeneration generally increases over time, so logically, people should have more pain — not less — as they age.
The oddities of back pain are likely due to the fact that a neurological healing process — not a physical one — is at work, says Dr. Rainville. As the theory goes, when a problem occurs and triggers pain, it’s your nervous system that actually adapts to the pain, and that’s what makes discomfort go away, says Dr. Rainville. Exercise and movement may help your nervous system to make this adjustment more rapidly.
Understanding Back Pain
Degeneration in your spine is a natural part of aging. “A bulging disc, in some ways, is no different than the wrinkle next to your eye,” says Dr. Rainville.
Contrary to what many people believe, only rarely does back pain strike while someone is lifting something heavy or performing an intensive activity. “In cases of new-onset disc herniation or sciatica, only 5% of people were doing anything considered heavy physical exertion, like lifting an air conditioner,” says Dr. Rainville. Those things are rare. Most people are doing simple tasks, such as leaning over to spit in the sink when brushing their teeth. “I commonly hear things like, ‘I was just reaching for a pencil,’ or ‘I sneezed,'” he says.
Back pain most often results from inevitable tissue failure caused by age-related deterioration. “There is no evidence that being careful will slow the process of disc degeneration down,” says Dr. Rainville. After all, being careful won’t stop any other signs of aging, such as wrinkles or gray hair.
The Genetics of Back Pain
Your experiences with back pain may have a lot to do with your individual genetic makeup. “The symptoms associated with back pain are highly variable,” says Dr. Rainville. “Pain can last anywhere from a day to three months.”
And just as some people are prone to heightened pain — which may occur in people with conditions such as fibromyalgia — some people are at the opposite end of the spectrum and less prone to pain.
Treating Back Pain
Many doctors are encouraging a return to the past when it comes to managing back pain, with less emphasis on intervention and more on encouraging movement.
Movement seems to be the stimulus to normalize pain responses in the nervous system. Studies on animals with spinal injuries show faster pain resolution among those forced to exercise than among those allowed to move less, says Dr. Rainville.
“This is probably the result of a survival mechanism,” he says. “If an animal in the wild doesn’t get moving, it is eaten or starves to death.” Movement also seems to help people. “People who get moving — back to the gym, back to cleaning the house — do the best,” says Dr. Rainville.
Surgery may be necessary for some back problems, such as conditions that are causing progressive nerve damage or that involve structural changes that need to be corrected, according to the NINDS.
So, if you’re experiencing back pain caused by normal wear and tear, the message is that in most cases you don’t need to stop your life and wait to heal. Move your body instead.
If your back pain persists and surgery is your next step, our team of surgeons, clinic staff and patient advocates are here to help with all your questions and find a solution to your pain. With over 35 years of experience and more than 60,000 successful procedures performed, the Bonati Spine Institute achieves a 98.75% patient satisfaction rate. Allow our physicians and staff to review your case and verify if the Bonati Spine Procedures can help you. To get started, click here to complete our contact form or call us at 855-267-0482.
Read the full article from Harvard Medical School here: https://www.health.harvard.edu/pain/babying-your-back-may-delay-healing