Coping with a Common Ache - Back Pain

At least 70 percent of women will suffer from back pain at some point in their lives. Of those, 14 percent will have severe pain that lasts at least two weeks, and up to 7 percent will suffer chronic pain that can last for more than six months, according to Gunnar B. J. Andersson, M.D., Ph.D., professor and associate chairman of the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at Rush - Presbyterian ­ St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago.

Many women experience their first bouts of back pain during pregnancy, as the uterus expands to accommodate the growing baby, Dr. Bensman says. Back pain can also occur after menopause, when estrogen production falls and a woman becomes more susceptible to osteoporosis, a loss of bone mass that weakens the back and causes pain. About the same time you start getting gray hairs, you'll probably start noticing twinges of pain in your back.

Often back pain is easily relieved without surgery or drugs, Dr. Waldrip says. In fact, 60 percent of people with acute back pain return to work within one week, and 90 percent are back on the job within six weeks. Here are some tips for preventing and treating back pain.

Do an early morning stretch. "I tell my patients to always start off their days by stretching while they're still in bed," Dr. Bensman says. "Remember that you've been lying prone for eight hours, and if you jump right up, you may be looking at a sore back." So before you get up, slowly stretch your arms over your head, then gently pull your knees up to your chest one at a time. When you're ready to sit up, roll to the side of the bed and use your arm to help prop yourself up. Put your hands on your buttocks and slowly lean back to extend your spine.

Walk away from it. Walking and other aerobic exercises such as swimming, biking and running keep your back healthy by conditioning your whole body. They strengthen the postural muscles of the buttocks, legs, back and abdomen. Aerobic exercise may help your body release endorphins, hormones that subdue pain. Try doing an aerobic workout for 20 minutes a day, three times a week, says Dr. Futch.

You deserve a break. Sitting puts more strain on your back than standing. If you must sit at your desk for an extended time or you're traveling by plane, train or car, change position often and give your back a break by standing up and walking around every hour or so, says Augustus A. White III, M.D., professor of orthopedic surgery at Harvard Medical School in Boston and author of Your Aching Back.

Leave your luggage lie. Instead of leaping out of the car or airplane and grabbing your bags, take a couple of minutes to stretch, Dr. Bensman suggests. Slowly bring your knees toward your chest and gently swing your arms around to loosen up stiff muscles. Avoid lifting with overstretched arms and try to keep the bags close to your body. Consider getting a collapsible luggage carrier with wheels.

Kneel, don't bend. Avoid bending over at the waist to pick up something. That creates tension in the back and increases your risk of injury, Dr. Futch says. Instead, use long-handled tools and kneel on a cushion or knee pad to garden, vacuum or do other "low-level" activities.

Let your legs do the work. If you're lifting something--no matter if it weighs 5 pounds or 50--bend your knees, keep your back straight, and lift with your legs. "The legs are much stronger than the back and can lift a lot more weight without strain," Dr. Futch says.

Test the load. "How many of us have strained back muscles when we tried to pick up boxes that we thought were empty but were actually filled with encyclopedias?" asks Dr. Sasso. Always nudge a box with your foot or cautiously lift it an inch or so before really trying to heft it. If it's too heavy for you, ask for help.

Turn your back on heavy lifting. If you can't find someone to help you move a heavy object, try this maneuver as a last resort: If the object is sitting at table height, turn your back to it to drag or lift it. You can also use this technique for raising windows. This position reduces the pressure that would be exerted on your spine by forcing you to use your legs for leverage.

Keeping Your Spine Sublime