En español | If a stint in the garden, or an overlong plane ride, sends your back into spasms, you're not alone: 80 percent of adults will suffer from back pain at some point in their lives, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.
Long work hours in one position can make us ache, as can day-to-day stresses that make us unconsciously stiffen. Inactivity can lead to weakness and stiffness.
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Even the simple habit of walking upright — our human birthright — adds to our back problems. "It puts a lot of stress on the body's core, which contains the spine," says Julie Silver, M.D., assistant professor at Harvard Medical School's Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and author of You Can Heal Yourself. As your spine ages, "you may get arthritis or slight bulges in the disks, or narrowing of the spinal canal, which can put pressure on the nerves."
Treatment options can, of course, include medications and surgery. "If you can get similar outcomes with less invasive and potentially safer interventions, those should be your first choices," says Adam Perlman, M.D., executive director of Duke Integrative Medicine at Duke University in Durham, N.C..
Talk to your doctor about some of these nondrug options for back pain:
- Work with a pro. "Physical therapy can focus on strengthening core muscles" — the major muscles of the stomach and back — "and improving flexibility as well as stabilizing the spine," says Silver. She suggests physical therapy twice weekly for four to eight weeks, plus an individualized home exercise program.
- Get moving. "Do activities — long walks, biking, swimming — where you raise your heart rate and break a sweat at least three times a week," says Norman Marcus, M.D., a pain medicine specialist at New York University School of Medicine and author of End Back Pain Forever: Without Surgery or Drugs. "That helps back pain by blowing off stress and increasing the capacity of muscles to withstand prolonged activity. Without endurance, your muscles fatigue more easily and you're more likely to get injured."
- Stay strong. "As we get older we start to lose muscle," says Marcus. "Weight training helps us preserve muscle, including those that support the spine." If you're unfamiliar with weight training, Marcus recommends working with a physical therapist or exercise trainer who can arrange a personal program for you.