Back problems are an ever-present reality for millions of Americans. Chronic back pain is the most common reason for missed work in the U.S. and the leading cause of disability worldwide.
To be sure, not all of this is caused by traumatic injuries. But when a car crash or some other jarring event causes a blow to the back, it can cause all sorts of serious issues, such as ruptured disks and fractures that can damage the spinal cord.
How can you tell when you should seek treatment for back pain and what treatments are available?
Common symptoms of back pain
Most back pain gradually gets better with time and self-care measures including rest, anti-inflammatory medication and physical therapy.
In more severe cases, however, the continuation of severe back pain may indicate a serious medical issue. Other concerning indicators include a fever, bowel or bladder problems, and pain that radiates down one or both legs. Weakness or numbness in one or both legs is also a signal that something serious may be wrong.
The Mayo Clinic and other authorities recommend seeing a doctor if these symptoms of back pain occur.
Why treating back injuries can be difficult
Treating back injuries is challenging because the back is a complicated mechanism. It contains many parts, including bones (also called vertebrae), muscles, tendons, ligaments and disks.
Indeed, in terms of overall human anatomy the back is perhaps best understand as a key part of the spinal column – with bones (vertebrae) running from the neck all the way down to the hips.
In this intricate anatomical system, some parts of the back (muscles, tendons, etc.) hold the bones together. Meanwhile, disks serve as shock absorbers to cushion the nerves.
Finding the right treatment for your situation
There is no set treatment for back pain. Identifying the right intervention depends on your unique circumstances.
Medications are often a place to start to try to alleviate back pain. In many cases, the least intrusive treatment is anti-inflammatory medication such as ibuprofen, Motrin or aspirin that are available over the counter.
Drugs containing prescription painkillers such as oxycodone may be a short-term solution. These should of course, because drugs containing opioids are generally not effective with chronic pain – and can also lead to addiction problems.
Physical therapy (PT) is another option for treating back injuries. Exercises to increase the strength and flexibility of your back may help a lot. PT can also include heat or electrical stimulation.
In some cases, more aggressive interventions than meds or PT may be needed. Epidural injections are a way to target relief to affected areas. And, in extreme cases, back surgery may be needed to correct structural problems with the spine.