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Back problems can be solved by staying active

Back problems can be solved by staying active
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How to stay active

The risk of chronic pain

Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, Summer 2010

The days of taking two Tylenol and resting in bed after a back injury are over, thanks to a revolution in how to treat back pain problems.

New research suggests that the old treatment for back injuries - resting in bed for days or weeks - may actually prolong back pain. That's because resting in bed causes your body to become stiff and your muscles weak, resulting in a loss of physical fitness, says Dr. Chris Adam, a sports medicine specialist at Legacy Sports Medicine in Winnipeg.

The new thinking is that the back is made for movement. And that means the sooner you get moving again, the sooner you will feel better.

"You may need to take more pain medication if you rest in bed for days or weeks, as the pain will feel worse. When you lie down, your body becomes de-conditioned as you stop your daily physical routine. Lying in bed may make you feel depressed, and it will be harder to get going again," says Adam.

Back problems are not unusual among health-care professionals. Some of the most common causes occur when health-care staff perform a lift or patient transfer awkwardly. Repetitive motions put constant strain on backs, as does sitting incorrectly and using poor ergonomics when working on a computer.

Backache sufferers may experience severe pain at first, and worry that they've done serious or permanent damage. But the spine is a strong part of your body, as it's reinforced by strong ligaments and large, powerful muscles. While a back strain may hurt, it's not easy to do serious injury to your back or spine.

Your doctor may not be able to diagnose the source of your pain, as Xrays and MRI scans rarely detect serious spinal injuries, and do not help in the case of ordinary back problems. The pain may come from the muscles, the ligaments or the small joints. The good news is that you probably haven't torn a ligament or a muscle.

Do not confuse a backache with arthritis or a slipped disc, which is when a disc of the spine traps a nerve. Very few back injuries require surgery.

"Typically, a back problem resolves itself within eight to 12 weeks of treatment, with alternating ice and heat and the use of simple analgesics, and then the implementation of an exercise and stretching program," says Adam. "Other short-term treatments include massage and physiotherapy, which uses ultrasound and core exercises to regain flexibility and have better balance."

The experts say it's best not to take a backache lying down. Instead, get out of bed and get your back moving again. Regular physical exercise develops your muscles, keeps your back supple and gives you stronger bones.

"We tell people that they can continue to work after a back injury. Healthcare workers need to be cognizant of using proper posture, and they need to communicate with their managers and request any required modified duties while in recovery stage," says Adam. "Nurses and home-care aides in particular need to learn the proper way to do lifts and transfers."

Some of the ways to speed recovery include walking, swimming, riding an exercise bike and doing yoga, pilates or Tai Chi. The latter three are particularly good for strengthening core muscles. Avoid physical exercise that includes impacts, such as football or rugby, or repetitive movements like those used in weight lifting, at least until your backache is gone.

"The more you strengthen your core body muscles, the faster you will recover when you do experience a strained back," says Adam. "Regular exercise and staying fit not only helps relieve back pain, but helps keep you healthy and happy in general."


About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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