Revolution in back care

By R.S. Karunaratne | Published: 2:00 AM Nov 29 2021
Columns Revolution in back care

By R.S. Karunaratne

If your back is out of whack, there has to be a solution. Most of us have experienced back pain at some point in our lives. Psychologist Dennis Turk says, “The people who never have pain are the unusual ones.” He was a member of a renowned team of pain researchers at the University of Washington. I have met many men and women who are suffering from back pain. I too have undergone the pain at times. However, you are not born to suffer from backache as there has been a revolution in back care.

Those who suffer from backache try numerous types of remedies. There are a number of ointments and balms that promise to relieve your back pain. But most of them will give you a temporary relief. Then we consult a specialist to get treatment for this vexing malady.

When you have back pain, some doctors advise you to stay in bed. However, Dr Richard Deyo of the University of Washington says, “That’s the worst thing you can do.” According to him, lying around actually boosts your risk of developing chronic back pain. Some of you may have had this experience. 

Diagnostic labels 

There are many diagnostic labels for back pain, but very often they cover up the fact that we do not know what is causing it. Even with sophisticated imaging techniques, doctors find it difficult to ascertain the real cause of back pain. Eugene Carragee, an orthopaedic surgeon at Stanford University, after diagnosing nearly 100 patients discovered that those with damaged discs were slightly more likely to get a backache. He also came to the conclusion that increased emotional distress was a major cause of back pain. 

Whether your back pain is caused by a damaged disc or depression, no one can deny that the pain is real. Some people when they feel the pain give up all types of activities and try to relax. According to medical opinion, this is the worst type of treatment. If you cannot rest and relax your muscles, what else can you do to relieve the pain?

Most people know through experience that back pain goes away on its own even if you do not take any treatment. Instead of trying to find ways to manage your pain, you should try to prevent flare-ups. If you do not get any relief from ordinary treatments, there are a few activities you can do to relieve pain.

Acute pain 

However, if you are compelled to do such activities and suffer from back pain, you may try over-the-counter medication. If the pain is acute, you have to consult a doctor and get a prescription. Usually, back pain subsides quickly unless it is very serious. If you have acute pain, doctors advise icing the area that is experiencing pain for 15 minutes at a time, three to five times a day. If the pain persists for more than a few days, use a heating pad for about 15 minutes. However, you should not try to relax. Remain active all the time. Another advice they give is sleeping on a firm mattress and curl up on your side with a pillow between your knees. When you sit, choose chairs that support your lower back.

A middle-aged practising lawyer in Colombo avoids sitting for extended periods. He also avoids lifting heavy objects and keeps away from stressful situations. He says he wants to avoid an attack of back pain. Although he is not a doctor, he is right in his thinking. Every little thing helps.

Those who take regular exercise rarely get back pain. If you cannot take part in strenuous sports such as cricket or football, simply take a brisk walk in the morning or evening. Walking is a very good exercise to keep away from back pain. It has been tried and tested by many people for generations. According to experts, there is no single exercise that will erase your pain. 

Meditation and hypnosis 

As mentioned earlier, stress can cause your body to tense up, worsening your back pain. In order to get rid of stress, you need to relax your body. According to an extensive medical report prepared by a panel of experts drawn from America’s National Institutes of Health, meditation and hypnosis can ease any chronic back pain. Such activities tend to mellow out your nervous system. Today there are other techniques such as yoga and tai chi which are real stress-busters.

When I felt an acute back pain some time ago, I sought the advice of a physiotherapist who enlightened me on stretching and strengthening exercises. In fact, such exercises produced positive results. He also taught me how to lift heavy objects and bend my body in the right way.

I have heard that chiropractic manipulations can bring relief to an aching back. Chiropractors say swelling, joint irregularities or muscle spasms can immobilise your back joints causing chronic pain. They move their hands on the painful areas and relieve pain. Massage therapists also do a similar job. Their rubbing, pushing and kneading increase blood circulation to the back and relax tense muscles. Such treatment is available even at Ayurvedic hospitals. 


Another pain relieving treatment is acupuncture. I once received acupuncture treatment for backpain. Acupuncture spurs the release of endorphins, our body’s natural painkillers. This is perhaps a better treatment than swallowing painkillers.

Surgery is perhaps the last resort for those suffering from back pain. Doctors say only two per cent of back-pain patients need surgery. However, before going in for surgery, get a second, third or fourth opinion from different specialists.

Back pain sufferers sometimes ask whether they should take an x ray. Dr Richard Deyo says most backaches are caused by “soft tissue” muscles, ligaments or discs that do not show up on x rays. Unless there is a specific problem with your bones, x rays are useless for diagnosing back pain.  According to medical opinion, even CAT scans and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can be misleading. 


Back pain is not going to ruin your life because most problems disappear overnight. However, there are a few suggestions from spine specialists for you to stay healthy:

Heavy smokers are likely to suffer back pain as smoking reduces the blood flow to the discs. As a result, the discs will degenerate prematurely.

Avoid lifting heavy objects. If you have to do so, bend from the knee and keep the object close to your body when you lift it.

Work at surfaces of proper height. To determine if your kitchen counter, ironing board and workplace are right for you, stand erect and place the palm of your hand on the surface. If you can do so without having to bend either your arm or your back, the height is right for you. 

Sitting too long is bad for your spine. Get up and move about every now and then.

Sit in a comfortable chair with armrests and back support.

Lose weight. Slimming down and firming up are helpful.

Finally, do not think of back pain all the time. Keep moving and enjoy life. 

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By R.S. Karunaratne | Published: 2:00 AM Nov 29 2021

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