With more than 65 million Americans currently suffering from back pain, it’s the second most common reason adults visit their doctors. Often, people are under the assumption that their pain is related to one specific incident or activity such as a sport or sitting at a desk too long.
According to Chief Wellness Officer and co-founder of RealAge, Michael Roizen, M.D., “nearly 95 percent of lower back pain can be treated [and] even more can be prevented by doing exercises that center around the pelvis and abdomen.”
Despite that sound advice, many opt to ignore their back pain, medicating daily while saying things like, “I must’ve slept funny last night” or “my chair at work is terrible.” These are complaints that back health experts, physical therapists and massage therapists hear all too often.
The back pain experts at the Healthy Back Institute have identified seven mistakes that most back pain sufferers make in their quest to find relief.
Here’s what they have to say:
Mistake #1: Not dealing with pain the first time
Many people will experience back pain that lasts a few days and then they forget about it when the pain disappears, rather than making the effort to identify and address the cause of the pain.
When you have a fall or some other accident, it’s easy to figure out why your back hurts. But in most cases, your back pain could be caused by any number of things. You need to know what conditions are developing in your body and, more important, what is causing those conditions to develop in the first place.
Mistake #2: Treating only the symptoms
The majority of the treatments people receive for back pain — cortisone shots, anti-inflammatory drugs, ultrasound, electrical stimulation and the like — address only the symptoms. You must understand that pain is merely a signal that something is wrong. Even if you get rid of the pain, the problem is still going to be there.
You’re hurting because your body is going through abnormal changes and those changes are causing abnormal postural condition. In turn, those abnormal postural condition are causing your muscles, joints and ligament to function under increased stress and strain. And they will eventually fail, causing a condition that is very painful, like a herniated disc.
Mistake #3: Thinking you’re too fit to have back pain
You may eat right, exercise regularly and be in good health, but that doesn’t mean you can’t experience back pain. The reality is that people who exercise frequently are just as likely — if not more so — to develop back pain. Certain groups of athletes — runners, cyclists, swimmers, dancers, gymnasts, bodybuilders — are prime candidates for back problems.
Cyclists, for example, almost without exception have serious muscle imbalances in the lower body — primarily their quads, hamstrings, hip flexors and glutes. This is because the constant repetitive motion of peddling a bicycle overworks one set of muscles while underworking other muscles.
The same thing can happen to non-athletes. Even if you don’t do any of the above-mentioned activities, your workout program can create muscle imbalances if you’re concentrating too heavily on certain areas of your body and neglecting others. Fit or not, you will be in trouble.
Mistake #4: Continuing to do what doesn’t work
Why would anyone keep going to a health care professional for months and months without seeing any improvement? Beats me.
The Healthy Back Institute advisory panel suggests that you dontt go beyond a three-month period without improvement before considering making a change. It’s not the number of treatments as much as it is the need to be seeing steady improvements. At the very least, you should insist on getting a monthly evaluation of your progress. You need to be clear that there is a plan of care, and that a proper diagnosis has been made.
Mistake #5: Not understanding that back pain is a process
Most of the time, back pain and sciatica take weeks, months or even years to develop. But you’re not aware that there’s a problem until something starts to hurt. Rarely is back pain the result of a one-time incident. Barring an injury, it just doesn’t happen overnight. Consider this story from Healthy Back Institute founder, Steve Hefferon.
When his child was learning to walk, he put up a baby gate at the foot of the stairs. Being lazy, Steve would lift his leg over the gate rather than opening it and walking through. He did this more than 30 times a day. One afternoon, he was cutting the grass and felt a radiating pain in his butt. The next time he cut the grass, the same thing happened. He eventually figured out that the awkward movement of stepping over the gate time after time had created a muscle imbalance. Driving to work, sitting at a desk or performing some other seemingly routine activity can do the same thing.
What exactly is a muscle imbalance? Try this analogy: You’re driving your car down the road and your front end is out of alignment. This is going to cause your tires to wear unevenly. This can also happen to your muscles.
To take this a bit further, let’s do something we call the Glute Squeeze Test. Do not attempt this if you’ve had a total hip replacement.
Stand up and put your heels together, with your toes pointing out — like a duck (at least at a 90 degree angle). Now, clench your butt muscles. Reach back and feel how tight they are. Relax. Next, turn your toes inward as far as you can. Now, with your toes touching, try to tighten your butt muscles. You can’t tighten them nearly as much, can you? The reason is that your muscles are in an unfamiliar position — they’re simply not used to working this way, so they’re not as strong. This should give you some idea of what a muscle imbalance is like.
If you correct the imbalance, the condition that’s causing the pain will go away. The good news is that it’s easy to find out where these muscle imbalances and postural dysfunctions are on your own body.
Once you know where these imbalances are, you can work toward correcting them by doing a combination of targeted exercises, stretches and self-treatments specifically designed for your condition. Another important thing to keep in mind: X-rays, MRIs and CT (cat) scans do not reveal muscle imbalances or postural imbalances.
Mistake #6: The “I’ve Tried Everything” Syndrome
You tell yourself that there’s nothing out there that you don’t know about, that surgery is the only option left, or — even worse — that you’ll just have to learn to live with the pain.
I can almost guarantee you that you haven’t tried a head-to-toe assessment, which is absolutely essential for identifying your muscle imbalances. I’d be willing to bet that your doctor, chiropractor or physical therapist hasn’t done them.
If you see a chiropractor, make sure they do a head-to-toe assessment and not just a single manipulation. A single manipulation will probably work for a while, but you’ll find yourself having to go back three to four times a week — until the insurance runs out.
Mistake #7: Not taking control
No one knows your body as well as you do, and nobody cares about your health as much as you do. Even if you’re working with a great professional, you still need to educate yourself.
Unfortunately, most people don’t know much about how their own body works, let alone what actually causes back pain and how to get rid of it. Patients who are knowledgeable get better results, faster. Make the decision to be active in your own rehab.
What You Need to Do Now
1. If what you’re doing isn’t working, STOP! Whatever treatment you’re trying, you must see steady improvement. Otherwise, you need to make a change.
2. Deal with the problem NOW! Waiting will only make things worse.
3. Recognize that fit people have muscle imbalances, too. Athletes, in fact, may actually be at greater risk.
4. Treat the symptoms AND the cause. Getting rid of pain is not the way to long-term relief.
5. Remember, it’s a process. Your condition didn’t happen overnight, and it’s not going to go away overnight.
6. Be open-minded and positive. If you try something new and believe it will work, then it just might. Negative thoughts guarantee failure.
7. Take control and take action. Don’t go to a doctor and sit there with your mouth shut. If they throw a word at you that you don’t understand, ask what it means.
In the end, the power is in your hands.