Mehtab Ghazi Rahman
I can bet almost all of you know have a close family member or a friend who suffers from back pain. One can appreciate the debilitating nature of back pain only when they have experienced it themselves. Simple tasks like walking, sitting or even sleeping becomes uncomfortable and very painful when one gets back pain.
Back pain, surprisingly, is very common. Four out of five of us will suffer from back pain at some point in our lives. Although back pain may be temporary, it is one of the commonest causes of visits to a doctor and absence from the workplace in the western world. The Canadian economy lost a staggering 16.4 billion dollars due to lost productivity and treatment of back pain in 2003! This is only one example; countries like the UK and US have similar statistics. If an audit was done in Bangladesh, I am pretty sure back pain would be one of the major health related causes for loss of productivity in our economy too.
But before I make you panic, let me assure you back pain is a treatable condition and can be easily tackled with home remedies and good body mechanics.
The back is prone to frequent injuries as it bears a large proportion of our body weight. Any awkward stress, such as carrying a very heavy object or making an uncomfortable trunk movement, can injure the back and trigger back pain.
Most backaches are due to musculoskeletal pain, and resolves in a matter of days. However, if you find that your back pain has been persisting for weeks or months, be careful of a few sinister conditions that may be triggering it off. These include trauma to the back, a 'herniated disc' (there is injury to one or more vertebral bones of the back), 'sciatica' (a nerve arising from the vertebra is compressed, which causes pain), 'spinal stenosis' (in which the outlet of a nerve from the vertebra gets pinched) or 'spondylosis' (weakening of the bones of our back due to age) .
A word of warning here : if you find that you have symptoms such as leg weakness or loss of sensation in your legs along with back pain, or worsening back pain with weight loss, then it is extremely important for you to seek help from an orthopaedic surgeon immediately. If you have severe back pain and a fever at the same time, you may have an infection, so get it checked to prevent it from getting any worse.
If you have back pain, a wide variety of treatments are available to help you get relief. Medical studies have shown that exercising your back is more effective in relieving back pain than bed rest, so no excuses for being lazy.
The first step in treating back pain is physical therapy and exercise. This includes simple exercises like twisting your trunk clockwise and anticlockwise, improving your flexibility, getting a back massage to relieve the stress off your back muscles and improving posture. We will be running a series of articles on back exercises in future editions of the Star Mag to help you mobilise your back.
If simple techniques do not work, the next step in treating your back is by the use of simple painkillers such as paracetamol and ibuprofen. Some forms of back pain may be severe enough to require steroid injections, specially if one of your nerves is getting pinched by a vertebral bone.
Another treatment is called TENS, which involves the passage of small amounts of (non-painful) electrical currents in the back, which helps to relieve the pain for some people. Unfortunately, this treatment is rarely available in Bangladesh.
Surgery is rarely indicated for back pain unless there is injury to a vertebral bone, nerve impingement or a malignant growth in the spine.
Nobody should have to go through the nightmare of back pain, and I shall now give you a few tips on how you can stop back pain before it affects you.
First, exercise your back. This does not necessarily have to involve the gym. Just take a walk in a park, paying particular attention to keeping your spine straight. Swimming is a great exercise because it takes the pressure off your back when you are floating in water.
Second, ensure that you mobilise your spine everyday by bending and stretching. This will keep your back muscles toned and strong. Weak back muscles are unable to support the heavy bones of your spine, and this often causes back pain.
Third, stop smoking! Smoking is bad for your health in countless ways. Smoking reduces the amount of oxygenated blood in your body, and this slows down the healing process of injuries to the back.
Fourth, maintain a healthy weight. If you are overweight, it puts extra pressure on your back, making it more vulnerable to injury.
Fifth, follow the following exercises to optimise your body mechanics. When you stand for long periods, relieve the pressure off your back by raising your leg and placing your foot onto a small stool alternately, and repeat a few times. If you work in an office that requires you to sit for long periods, support your back with a large cushion or rolled towel to maintain the natural curvature of your back. Choose a seat that has back support and armrests. Always ensure that your hips and knees are in the same level when you are sitting down. When you have to pick an object from the floor, don't bend you back to pick it up : flex your knees and keep your back straight when reaching for the floor. Both hard and soft beds are bad for you back, the best mattress is a medium-firm one. Don't believe people when they say sleeping on a rock hard bed is the best way to dealing with back pain. Use comfortable pillows, but make sure it does not cause your neck to flex too much.
Just like any other part of your body, your spine needs adequate care. So look after it well. After all, its not that hard to make a few adjustments to your daily routine in order to maintain good body mechanics, and this is key to maintaining a firm, straight and healthy back. Having a good posture is not only good for your spine, it also makes you come across as a confident and poised individual.
(The author is a graduate of Human Bio-Medical Sciences from the University of London and is a finalist Student-Doctor at St. Bartholomew's and the Royal London School of Medicine and Dentistry, UoL)
(R) thedailystar.net 2008