Have you ever had back pain? This malady
affects many Canadians during their lifetime. Did you know that nearly
two-thirds (64%) of Canadians report experiencing back pain in the past
year? Of those, almost 7/10 (69%) characterized their pain as being moderate
to severe. In almost one-third of the cases (29%), the pain lasted a month
or more. (Source: Environics, May 2003).
It is truly amazing how back pain is so
prevalent in our society. It costs Canada an estimated 8 billion dollars
annually in direct and indirect costs (Coyte et al. Arthritis Care Res.
1998). Much has been written about preventing back pain by exercising,
proper body mechanics, maintaining an appropriate body weight, and adequate
warm-up before strenuous activity to name just a few. But what should you do
if you experience an acute episode of back pain and spasms?
- The most obvious is to stop the activity
that may be causing it. Don’t try to "work through it" –
it will only make matters worse.
- Rest your back – lie down; don’t
sit. Sitting actually increases the pressure on the discs of your lower
back. If that is the source of your problem, you can again make it
- Ice versus heat – This is an age old
question and source of ongoing debate. If your back has spasms due to an
injury or inflammation of a joint, nerve or disc, heat can actually make
it worse. Yes, heat is more comfortable and soothing but ice therapy or
cold packs will reduce the irritation and inflammation of the involved
tissues and help to control the pain. If the spasms are resulting from
these injuries, ice will be the answer.
Here is a good example of heat versus ice
with an acute condition – sunburn. If you got a bit too much sun last
Summer and happened to get in the shower, which would feel better on your
skin – cold water? Or hot water? That’s right, cold or cool water helps
to ease the irritation and inflammation of sunburned skin. Heat will
irritate the skin and increase your pain level.
Heating pads can also be dangerous. I have
seen second degree burns on patients’ backs as a result of falling asleep
on heating pads which were much too hot.
- Gentle stretching – Emphasize gentle.
Muscles spasm for a reason – in reaction to an injury or to protect
the back from further injury. If you are not sure which stretches are
appropriate, consult with your health care professional.
- Golf balls versus tennis balls – while
golf and tennis can cause back pain, these balls can be used to help
relax the muscles. Be cautious if you have not done this before and if
painful, or seems to tighten the back muscles, discontinue this
immediately. If there is a larger area of muscle involved, use tennis
balls – golf balls work better for smaller muscle groups. Get in a
position so that you can vary the pressure on your back with the ball,
simply by changing your body position. Tennis balls on an exercise pad,
or on the bed will help to minimize the pressure and may be a good way
to start especially if you have not done this before. Shift the ball
around to four or five areas of the spasm, leaving it in each spot for
no longer than 30 seconds. Again be cautious with this approach.
- Sleep and rest – Rest will help the
body heal. Lying on your back with your knees bent (with a pillow
underneath your knees) or on your side with a pillow between your knees
(again knees bent) will help to relax the muscle and reduce the strain
on the area. Many patients also find it comfortable to lie on their side
with a body pillow in front of them, and place the top arm and top leg
over the body pillow. This essentially places you in a well supported _
prone position which is usually quite comfortable for the back.
- Back supports – these vary
considerably in effectiveness and design. Unless you have a support
which you have used before with success, it would be best to consult
with your health care professional as to whether one would be of any
benefit, and if so, which design.
- Car seats and chairs – We all have to
sit sometime but you have to limit the time spent doing this when you do
have back pain and spasms. Sitting increases the pressure in the lower
back. Also, a soft chair or car seat does not provide proper support for
your pelvis and therefore increases the strain on your lower back. There
are a number of various back supports, and firm seat cushions which will
help to provide better support.
So there you are, a few quick tips on
dealing with back pain and spasms. It is very important to keep in mind that
these hints are just emergency first aid tips only. If the back pain or
spasms persist for more than 24-48 hours, you should consult with your
health care professional. Your health care professional will examine you and
determine the best approach, not only for dealing with that acute episode,
but more importantly, designing a strategy to prevent future episodes.
Published in Active Woman Canada, January 2004