HomeNewsArticle Display

Oh my back!

(U.S. Air Force graphic by Airman 1st Class Janelle Patiño)

(U.S. Air Force graphic by Airman 1st Class Janelle Patiño)

FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. -- If you wake up in the morning with back pain, don't feel 'old.' Research shows that 85 percent of the people in the United States will experience low back pain at least once during their lives; however, it's important to prevent it from getting worse.

Back pain is proven to be a common complaint which results in absence from work or visiting the doctor. According to the Physical Therapy Clinic here, causes of back pain can include injuries, mechanical problems, a disease process or even stress.

"Injuries such as sprains or fractures that result from accidents, falls, athletic activities or 'overdoing it' around the house or yard can cause back pain," said Rhett Norris, 92nd Medical Operations Squadron physical therapist. "Sprains are damage to the ligaments that support the spine, and they can occur from twisting or lifting improperly."

Mechanical problems involve the way your spine moves or the way you feel when you move your spine in certain ways. Other mechanical causes of back pain include muscle spasms, muscle tension and ruptured discs, which are also called herniated discs. One of the most common mechanical causes is a condition called intervertebral disc degeneration.

"Intervertebral disc degeneration simply means that the discs between the vertebrae of the spine are breaking down with age," said Norris. "As they deteriorate, the discs can lose the ability to cushion the vertebrae, which can lead to pain if the back is stressed."

Although the causes of back pain are usually physical, emotional stress can play a role in how severe the pain is and how long it lasts.

"Many people hold emotional stress in their muscles," he said. "Stress can affect the body in many ways, including causing back muscles to become tense and painful."

According to Norris, men and women are equally affected. Low back pain occurs most often between ages 30 and 50, due in part to the aging process but also as a result of inactive lifestyles with too little exercise.

In most cases, it is not necessary to see a doctor for back pain because the pain usually goes away with or without treatment. However, a trip to the doctor is probably a good idea if you have numbness or tingling, if your pain is severe and doesn't improve with over the counter medications and rest or if you have pain after a fall or an injury.

"It is also important to see your doctor if you have difficulty controlling your bladder or bowels, pain or numbness in your legs, pain following a fall or impact to your back, pain that's steadily increasing over several hours, difficulty with your balance or coordination or unexplained weight loss," Norris said. "Such symptoms could signal a serious problem that requires treatment soon."

Most patients at Fairchild are seen for mechanical back pain which is caused by wear and tear over a long period of time.

"The patient's ligaments and bones change slowly over time because of a muscle imbalance," said Master Sgt. Daniel Davis, 92nd Medical Operations Squadron physical therapy flight non-commissioned officer in charge "So the most important thing for most people who want to avoid having back pain is to stretch regularly, stretch properly and get regular exercise."

Other treatment the physical therapy clinic looks at is core strength. There are many muscles that people never go to the gym to work out; muscles that many people don't know exist but play a major role in protecting the spine.

"Core strength is important for patients who have a history of back pain," he said. "After a trauma or prolonged period of pain, the way these muscles work and how effectively they protect our spine changes."

Norris said less than two percent of people with lower back pain have a serious condition, and it's important to keep in mind that medical tests may not show the cause of your back pain. X-rays and MRIs are usually not necessary to provide evidence based care for most cases of low back pain.

"Many times the cause of back pain is never known," he said. "Fortunately, it is not necessary to know the cause of back pain in order to treat it and recover from it."

For more information on how to prevent, treat or learn more about low back pain, visit www.LowBackPainAtoZ.org or call (509) 247-2361 to set an appointment with your primary care provider.