The Many Faces of Back Pain
Injury Care & Prevention Mar 31, 2016
The Many Faces of Back Pain

“You know you’re getting old when your back starts going out more than you do.” -Phyllis Diller

From tennis elbow to torn rotator cuff to ankle sprain to ACL tear – it’s all painful territory.

But then . . . there’s the vast, dark, forbidding (cue ominous music) . . . Land of Back Pain!

There’s sciatica, a pernicious pain. Derived from the Latin ischiadicus, “of pain in the hip.” Or you could have a pain in the butt – actually, the tailbone – called coccydynia. There’s simple muscle strain. And complicated herniated discs. Osteomyelitis? Nasty business! Vertebral Fracture? Ouch. Ankylosing Spondylitis? You don’t even want to know!

And old fashioned lumbago. It’s become a vestigial term. Something grandpa would say as he rose slowly from the Barcalounger: “My lumbago is acting up!” But his “comfy chair” was probably contributing to his lumbago, i.e. pain in the lumbar region of the back, or lower spinal area, caused by a variety of factors including injury, arthritis, sleeping on a worn mattress or wearing shoes with no support. Or spending too much time in the Barcalounger.

So, the question is: how do you escape from the Land of Back Pain?

Outlandish Back Pain Remedies 

Sure, the outlandish back pain remedies of the past seem silly today. One instructed the back pain victim to roll on the ground at the sound of spring’s first cuckoo. There was also ironing the back with a flat iron. And the potato cure. Not only rubbing the affected area with a cut, raw potato, but carrying the other half in your pocket.

But how different are the remedies of today? Neck massagers with wireless remote control; body wedge cushions; endless support braces (that copper one can’t miss!); hanging bars that simulate a bat at rest; inversion tables that look dangerously like waterboarding; motorized massage recliners; pillows of all shapes, sizes and contours, made from “all-unnatural” materials; vibrating massagers (for your back, only! ); and, if all else fails, a back hair shaver.

Not to mention the preponderance of pills and endless nutraceuticals that promise relief.

No—wait—there’s hope! Really!

With a whopping 80% of Americans expected to experience back pain in their lifetime, there’s got to be a better way than waiting for it to happen, or reacting to an injury instead of trying to prevent one.

Though the often quoted “Whenever I feel the need to exercise, I lie down until it goes away” —is pretty funny, it’s probably the worst idea, well, ever. “Studies show that people with short-term low-back pain who rest feel more pain and have a harder time with daily tasks than those who stay active.”

Another key concept is early intervention:

“Mary Ann Wilmarth, DPT, a spokeswoman for the American Physical Therapy Association and chief of physical therapy at Harvard University, says it is critical that people address any back pain or injury right away. ‘Early intervention can help prevent a chronic problem from developing and obviate the need for medication and surgery,’” she says.”

In fact, according to Chris Maher, a professor at the George Institute for Global Health: “Exercise combined with education reduced the risk of an episode of low back pain in the next year by 45 percent. In other words, it almost halved the risk.”

Patient, heal thyself!

It’s actually “Physician, heal thyself.” But even an exercise program, combined with education, may not be enough. There seems to be evidence that a “laying on of hands” by a professional can help:

“The draft guideline recommends exercise, in all its forms (for example, stretching, strengthening, aerobic or yoga), as the first step in managing low back pain.

Massage and manipulation by a physiotherapist should only be used alongside exercise because there is not enough evidence to show they are of benefit when used alone.”

But after talking with your practitioner, your physical therapist, your sports med physician or your chiropractor, go hit the gym, hit the weights, hit the pool, get on your bike, join the softball team, just get moving!

We’ll leave the last word to the experts:

“Interestingly, the type of exercise program didn’t matter . . .

The end result was that if someone with a history of back pain exercised in a regular way, he or she was considerably less likely to be felled by more back pain within a year.”

Or, as another expert once said: “Move it or lose it, grandpa”!


National Centers for Health Statistics, Chartbook on Trends in the Health of Americans 2006