It’s something a majority of Americans can relate to: back pain. Sixty-six million of us are living with it and eight out of ten will visit a doctor for this complaint. Arlene Wright is a nurse practitioner for Lee Memorial Health System.
“The most common presentations we see are the lumbar strains. If it was an injury you get concerned. Or older people that have osteoporosis or compression fractures, which can be very, very painful,” says Wright.
Despite our fixation on quick fixes, national guidelines call for conservative treatment first.
“So non-steroidal, anti- inflammatories, heat and rest. Once they’re over that initial episode back exercises are important in trying to recondition people,” says Wright.
It’s a protocol backed up by the American College of Physicians and the American Pain Society.
“Even early treatment with ice therapy, heat therapy, anti-inflammatory, physical therapy, doesn't have to be anything really advanced or cutting edge,” says Dr. Andrew Gross, interventional pain specialist on Lee Memorial Health System’s medical staff.
Most people who follow recommended guidelines of using over-the-counter meds along with therapy will feel better in about three months. But there are warning signs that your back pain needs more focused attention. That’s generally when doctors feel there is nerve involvement.
“Especially with neck and back pain, the major structure that can cause the problems, you’ve got the nerves which are like the wires and generally you get the typical sciatic pain down the leg or the shooting pain down the arm,” says Dr. Gross.
When nerve pain is suggested, doctors may order advanced screenings like an MRI or CT scan. Based on the diagnosis, a patient may get prescription drugs, injection therapy or even surgery. But for a majority of conditions, time and conservative treatment is the best medicine.
“So even something as scary as a herniated disk in a lot of cases will heal on it own,” says Dr. Gross.