It was 12 years ago that Mahaveer Gandhi, a 46-year-old businessperson from Bengaluru, met with an accident in his warehouse. He slipped, fell and badly hurt his back. The incident changed his life in many ways. Post his fall, Gandhi developed a chronic back pain.
“Now, the pain seems to come back every five to six months. And it mostly affects my lower back,” Gandhi tells Happiest Health.
Nature and types of back pain
Back pain is a physical discomfort that could occur anywhere on the spine or back. The condition could either be spine-related or non-spine-related.
“Spine-related backache could result due to a problem in any part of the spine. It could originate from the bones, ligaments, joints, discs, muscles or nerves. Non-spine-related pain could crop up due to a problem in the structures surrounding the spine, like the kidneys, large blood vessels and other abdominal structures,” explains Dr Amrithlal A Mascarenhas, spine surgeon at Manipal Hospitals, Bengaluru.
There are three types of back pain according to the United States National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Disease (NIAMS). Acute back pain could occur suddenly and last anywhere from a day to four weeks. Subacute back pain can occur suddenly or over a period of time. It can last from four weeks to twelve weeks. Chronic back pain may develop quickly or slowly and can last for more than 12 weeks.
What causes back pain
Dr Mascarenhas says that different anatomical structures in the spine can get affected by a variety of pathologies. “Foremost among them is lumbar slip disc (the intervertebral disc that has lost its normal shape and consistency) and sciatica (sciatica is where sciatica nerve is compressed. It is a nerve which connects from lower back and feet), spinal fractures, spinal infections, spinal tumours, and degenerative changes of the spine,” he says.
According to Dr J V Srinivas, lead consultant, orthopaedic and joint surgeon, Aster RV Hospital, Bengaluru, back pain commonly stems from strain, tension or injury. “Frequent causes of back pain are strained muscles or ligaments, a muscle spasm, muscle tension, damaged discs, injuries, fractures or falls.”
Watch out for the signs
The main symptom of back pain is an ache or pain anywhere in the back. Sometimes it can go all the way down to the back and legs. Some back issues can cause pain in other parts of the body, depending on the nerves affected. It can be associated with weakness and numbness in the lower limbs or even bowel and bladder function abnormalities, say experts.
“Smokers, people with obesity, poor posture and deconditioned muscles (due to inactivity and sedentary lifestyle) have a higher risk of chronic non-specific muscular backache. Additionally, post-menopausal women, elderly individuals, people with diabetes, hypothyroidism and other chronic disorders are predisposed to backache,” points out Dr Mascarenhas.
How to cure back pain
Simple measures like applying a hot compress or an ice pack to the painful area could alleviate back pain. “Resting from strenuous activity and moving around will ease stiffness, reduce pain and prevent muscles from weakening,” says Dr Srinivas.
“Exercises should be planned according to the ability of the patients. Rapid movements with excessive strain on the muscles will be counterproductive. Plank exercises for core muscle strengthening are recommended as it is an isometric form of exercise that causes minimal muscle damage and maximises muscle function. Spinal extension exercises are also good for helping in improving posture,” notes Dr Mascarenhas.
Dr Srinivas says that walking, swimming and biking could also give you some relief from backache. “Start with short sessions and build up over time. If your back is hurting, try free style swimming but avoid any strokes that twist your body, including breast strokes.”
Experts recommend people with back pain to avoid bending forward while doing yoga or any exercises as it might hurt their back more.
Even Gandhi’s doctor advised him to add physical activity to his daily routine. Recollecting the episodes of backache, Gandhi says, “The pain persists for two to three days. Mostly, my back hurts during the mornings. To alleviate the pain, I go for a brisk walk and make sure that I don’t bend down. I also apply ayurvedic oil, gel and take medications as recommended by my doctor,” he adds.
The winters are the toughest for Gandhi. “My back becomes stiff during the winters and thus my pain increases. I take a few precautions. For instance, I don’t lift heavy objects and try to ease my workload.”
The line of treatment for back pain depends on the specific cause of the pain. “In case of severe pain resulting from slip disc or spinal degeneration, a surgical method of treatment may be eventually required. Surgery might also be needed if the pain results due to infections, tumours or fractures of the spine,” says Dr Mascarenhas.
Dr Mascarenhas says that chronic non-specific backache could be treated by introducing lifestyle changes like regular exercise, a healthy diet, posture management, muscle building and strength training. “It’s also necessary to treat all underlying diseases an individual might have in order to give them long-lasting relief,” the doctor advises.
“Ultrasound, electrical stimulation (therapy that involves the use of low voltage electric currents to treat pain) as well as some muscle-release techniques to the back muscles and soft tissues may help alleviate the pain,” adds Dr Srinivas.
Elaborating on some of the other ways to alleviate back pain, Dr Srinivas’s advice to those suffering from backache is to stay active, stretch and strengthen muscles, maintain a healthy weight and quit smoking.