Managing Your Pain

Your Complete Guide to a Healthy Back

The back is made up of more than 30 bones and hundreds of nerves, muscles, ligaments, and tendons. But all those moving parts mean it’s vulnerable to problems, too. Read on for your complete guide to keeping your back strong and healthy.

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The back is literally your bodys support system, made up of more than 30 bones and hundreds of nerves, muscles, ligaments, and tendons. But all those moving parts mean its vulnerable to problems, too. "Women are particularly susceptible to pain because they lug around extra weight every day, from purses and grocery bags to a kid on their hip," says Heidi Prather, DO, chief of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Plus, many of us have gained weight and lost the time to exercise over the years, weakening our back muscles. Is it any wonder that almost five million women each year see doctors due to low back pain? Luckily, back issues are easier to resolve than you may think. Use this guide to pinpoint whats causing yours, so you get the right treatment, fast—and prevent future flare-ups.

Muscle strains

The lowdown. Muscle strains are actually small tears in, or the stretching out of, muscle fibers. Theyre also the top reason for back pain.

What it feels like. A stiffness or soreness that worsens with activity (including small movements, like bending over to pick something up).

The cause. Any repetitive or jolting movement—or even just sitting. "Women who sit at work hunched over for hours put stress on their backs," says Jeffrey Goldstein, MD, director of the spine service at the New York University Langone Medical Center. "If they also dont exercise regularly, they lose strength in their back and their core—the muscles which help support their spine. So when they do ramp up their activity, they may pull one or several back muscles." Another surprising trigger: "Tight hamstrings can exacerbate a strain by putting stress on the low back," explains Renee Garrison, a physical therapist at the Medical University of South Carolina.

The Rx
  • Every waking hour for the first 24 hours, then every few hours for the next 24: Ice the strain for 15 minutes to reduce swelling. (Heat will only increase inflammation.)
  • Every two hours (at least): "Stretch and move gently," says Jennifer Solomon, MD, a physiatrist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. "Lying down may cause the muscle
  • Every four to six hours: Try an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory like ibuprofen—take according to package directions.
  • After 48 hours: If pain doesnt improve, call your primary care physician to rule out a more serious condition.

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Hallie Levine Sklar
Last Updated: February 07, 2012

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