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Fri, Jan. 24

Oh, my aching back! Causes of remedies for back pain

If you've ever exclaimed, "Oh, my aching back!" you're not alone. Eighty percent of Americans experience back pain at some time in their lives. Understanding the causes of back pain and knowing when to consult a physician can help you deal effectively with this common condition.

Back pain can vary from a dull muscle ache to a shooting or stabbing pain that radiates down the leg. It's most frequently caused by strained muscles and ligaments due to improper lifting or sudden, awkward movements. Mechanical problems, such as a ruptured disk, also may cause back pain, as can conditions like arthritis and kidney stones.

Back pain is most frequent among older people as well as for those who do not get adequate exercise and those who are overweight. There is some evidence that back pain in the older population is associated with functional limitations, particularly limitations in standing for more than 15 minutes, pushing or pulling large objects and walking a half-mile or more.

There are two main types of back pain: acute pain, which starts quickly and lasts less than six weeks, or chronic pain, which lasts for more than three months.

Taking acetaminophen, aspirin, or ibuprofen may help ease acute back pain. You should see a physician, however, if you have severe pain that does not improve with rest; if you experience numbness or tingling; or if you have back pain after a fall or injury.

Treatments for chronic pain may include physical therapy exercises and taking medication prescribed by your physician. You also may need to change how you lift and sleep.

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke offers the following tips for a healthier back:

• Stretch before exercise or other strenuous activity.

• Avoid slouching when sitting or standing.

• Sleep on your side on a firm surface to reduce any curve in your spine.

• If you work at a desk, make sure your work surface is at a comfortable height and that your chair has good lumbar support.

When lifting, be sure to lift with your knees instead of your back, pulling in your stomach muscles and keeping your head down and in line with your straight back. Keep the object you are lifting close to your body, and pivot your feet rather than twisting your body when lifting. Never attempt to lift objects that are too heavy for you.

Finally, listen to your body. If your back pain is severe or persistent, it's time to see your physician.

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