Don’t see drugs or surgery as cure-alls
Sure, they both have their roles, but they’re limited. Medications, which often have unwanted side effects, don’t address the underlying cause of back pain, and surgery can’t always fix a complicated problem. Surgery can only adjust the architecture: Central pain mechanisms, located in the spinal cord and brain, are not directly affected by spinal surgery explains Jeffrey Gross, M.D., a clinical associate professor of rehabilitation medicine at the New York University School of Medicine. And a lot of people look to drugs to deal with back pain. It’s part of our quick-fix culture. But sometimes the cause and solution to lower back pain are not always so clear.
Mary Westheimer found this out firsthand. After having surgery to repair a herniated disc in 2001, muscle spasms in her back caused the pain to return. Rather than relying on medication, she decided to go for acupuncture and chiropractic work. For me, these therapies aren’t a once-and-you’re-done solution, says Westheimer, 54, a sculptor’s assistant in Phoenix, Arizona. I continue to go for treatments, and they really do help. The chiropractic work helps convince my right hip, which tends to go out of place and contributes to my back problems, that it really should stay in place, and the acupuncture relieves the pain and muscle tension. Other effective noninvasive options with little risk and few side effects are physical therapy (PT)¸massage and other types of bodywork.
Brush up on back facts
If only we knew as much about our backs as we do about who’s on American Idol. In Europe, there are back schools that address the prevention and rehabilitation of long-term back pain by providing information about how the back works, what causes pain and how to protect your back. In the U.S., this kind of education is often part of physical therapy, but if you’re not getting PT, you may not learn the basics of spinal health. We don’t take a very preventive look in this country: we’re more treatment-oriented, Desai says. So the onus is on you to learn how your back functions and how to protect it.