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Back pain getting you down? Here’s what you need to know from a Beacon family doctor

The fall and winter months can be tough on backs when many of us are outdoors doing chores like raking leaves and shoveling snow.

At some point in our lives, most of us — 84 percent, in fact — will experience back pain. And while the pain nearly always goes away without surgery, it can range from mild to downright miserable.

Dr. Brian Huber

“We often talk about back pain like it’s the problem,” said Dr. Brian Huber, family physician, Beacon Medical Group Mishawaka Primary Plus. “But back pain is actually the symptom of a problem, typically related to nerves, muscles, bones or ligaments.”

With so many possible causes of back pain, what should you do when it happens to you?

The overwhelming majority of back pain cases will go away within a couple of weeks, Dr. Huber said. If you don’t need immediate care, over-the-counter remedies are often enough to keep temporary back pain under control.

“Anti-inflammatory pain relievers, such as Advil or Aleve, and heat can help,” Dr. Huber said. “Typically, icing the muscles will make them tighter and compound the problem.”

The duration of your symptoms is often the indicator to seek medical attention. Any back pain that lasts beyond four weeks should be seen by your physician to evaluate for other causes of your symptoms.

Treatments and testing will differ for patients that continue to have pain beyond 4 weeks including, X-rays, medications and possibly a MRI.

In some cases, back pain can also stem from multiple non musculoskeletal problems such as viral illnesses, such as the flu, or kidney problems, whether kidney stones or an infection.

When to call your health care provider

There is no easy answer as to when to call your doctor, which is why back pain is a very common diagnosis in urgent care settings.

Generally speaking, seek care if any of the following are present:

  • Significant trauma such as a motor vehicle accident or fall from significant height.
  • One or both legs/arms feel numb, weak or have a tingling sensation.
  • You have systemic symptoms such as fever, weight loss, or loss of appetite.
  • Severe medical co-morbidities, including history of cancer or osteoporosis.

Many people worry that they’ll need back surgery, but Dr. Huber said the vast majority of people with back pain recover without the need for surgery.

“Your provider will explore the cause of your pain and suggest treatments based on your diagnosis and any other health issues you might have,” Dr. Huber said.

Most acute back pain patients will be treated conservatively with over-the-counter medicines and other non-pharmacologic treatments, which could include massage, heat, acupuncture or manipulation.

However, if your pain persists or worsens, then treatments such as physical therapy with prescription medications often come into play.

How to keep back pain at bay

Before back pain occurs – or after a painful bout has passed – you can take actions to reduce your risk for future episodes.

  • The number one thing to protect your back is to keep your weight in a normal range. Obesity is a significant cause of back pain in America.  If you are overweight or obese, then seeing your physician for weight loss could help back pain in the future.
  • Stop Smoking. Tobacco abuse causes early destruction of your discs and arthritis.
  • Exercise regularly to keep your back strong. Yoga, Pilates or Barre are useful to gain range of motion and strengthen without the needs of heavy weights, which can be very useful for individuals with back problems.
  • Stand up straight. Good posture offers better support to your back.
  • Maintain a healthy work/desk environment. Sitting all day at a desk is very stressful on your back.  Take frequent short walks or get a standing desk.

“Especially when you’re outdoors raking up the last of the leaves in your yard or shoveling snow from your driveway this winter, try to keep your back straight, avoid reaching far from your body and take frequent breaks,” Dr. Huber said. “Your back will thank you.”

Let our Beacon doctors care for you

No matter your need or age, our primary care doctors are here to treat your medical needs. If you’re looking for a new family doctor, Beacon Health System is here to serve you. Click here to find a physician.