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8 Back pain myths — debunked

Back pain is the second most frequent reason patients visit the doctor, behind only the common cold. Back pain affects up to 90 percent of Americans at some point in their lifetime.

Woman with backache

Many people believe that back pain is a part of the aging process and that they just have to live with it, or that the only treatment is risky surgery. However, neither is true. Here are some of the most common myths about chronic back pain.

Myth #1: Back pain is all in your head

A physician cannot “see” pain through diagnostic testing. And even after a thorough examination, a doctor may be unable to determine what is causing the pain. However, that does not mean that the pain is not real. People with back pain do not wear a cast or use a crutch, making it difficult for others to understand.

Myth #2: Back pain means you’re getting old

Back pain can affect everyone. I once treated a 14-year-old gymnast who had a herniated disc. However, is it common to see it in teenagers? No. Most of my patients range from 30 to 60 years old. It is becoming more common in middle age because people today are more active than in the past.

Myth #3: Back pain always has a cause

Many factors can increase the potential for chronic back pain, such as carrying around extra weight, lifting heavy objects or an injury such as a sprain or fracture. Many of my patients are truck drivers and construction workers. But there may be some genetic factors that make someone more susceptible to back pain as well. Still, 50 percent of people with back pain do not know what causes it.

Myth: #4: Back pain is only in the lower back

Back pain can affect the neck as well as the upper and lower back. It can radiate to the arms and legs, where it can then cause weakness or numbness.

Myth #5: Narcotics are the only treatment for back pain

There are many ways to treat chronic back pain other than Oxycontin, Percocet and Vicodin. Anti-inflammatories, such as ibuprofen, Celebrex and Mobic can help with pain. In addition, muscle relaxers, including Skelaxin, Robaxin and Soma may alleviate pain as well. Even Cymbalta, an anti-depressant, has been shown to help with nerve-related pain. Minor interventions include epidural steroid injections, nerve root blocking and facet blocks, which will determine whether a facet joint is the cause of the pain. We can perform radio-frequency ablation (thermal heat) to interrupt pain signals and we can remove disc material through a small needle.

Myth #6: Back pain does not require seeing a doctor

Many people live with low-level chronic back pain for years and only see a doctor when the pain becomes unbearable. When back pain does not go away, even if you think the pain is not serious, you should see a doctor. The pain could be a symptom of something more serious, such as cancer. Also, people with mild chronic pain sometimes develop harmful ways of alleviating the pain, such as the extended use of over-the-counter medications. If you have had back pain for more than two weeks, visit a doctor to make sure that it is not something serious.

Myth #7: Surgery will cure back pain completely

Surgery is not always the answer. Sometimes there is nothing surgical we can do to resolve the pain. There may either be nothing to operate on or too much to operate on, such as multiple disc hernias. While surgeons may say they can fix the problem, they don’t know for certain whether surgery will cure the pain. Some patients think a 50-50 chance is reasonable and go ahead with the procedure.

Myth #8: Back pain will go away with some form of treatment

Unfortunately, there are cases where the pain never goes away even if the cause is addressed. However, there are things we can do to make people more comfortable. Chronic back pain is debilitating. In addition to limiting physical activities, it can cause depression, anxiety and affect day-to-day interactions. It can be difficult to determine when someone is in pain. Often there are no obvious signs, which makes it hard for others to relate. But there are support groups for people in pain so they may join with others who understand what they are going through.

Watch: Lower back stretching exercises

Watch this video to learn stretching exercises that can assist in alleviating lower back pain.

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