Oh, My Aching Back
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“Oh, My Aching Back,” Ensign, Jan. 1992, 72–73

“Oh, My Aching Back”

“Oh, my aching back,” 80 percent of us will complain at some time during our lifetimes. Back pain is considered second only to the common cold as a reason to miss work. It affects us physically, socially, and mentally. It may stop a gardener from spending a day working in her tomato patch or a golfer from finishing his last round. It may also limit the length of time one can sit or the quality of sleep one gets. Chronic back pain (regular pain lasting longer than three months) can lead to discouragement and depression.

But just how serious is it? How long will it last? Can it be prevented—or stopped from recurring?

Fortunately, back pain usually doesn’t indicate a serious problem, and it generally lasts only for a short period of time. Studies show that fewer than 50 percent of back-pain sufferers feel discomfort for longer than one month. After three months, 75 percent have recovered, and after six months, the recovery rate is about 90 percent. With time and proper treatment, even the worst back pain can be resolved. Less than 4 percent of those who suffer back pain will need surgery.

You can help prevent pain by learning how your back functions and by avoiding undue stress to the back. Body position can make a great difference. For example, when you stand erect, the pressure on your lower back is equal to your body weight. When you bend forward and twist your body to the side, the pressure on the lower back increases 1,000 percent.

The way you lift also affects the pressure on your back. For example, if you weigh 180 pounds, and if you extend your arms and bend forward while twisting to lift a 30-pound child, 2,100 pounds of pressure are thrust upon your back. If you lifted that same child close to your body and maintained a straight spine, this pressure could be reduced to approximately 200 pounds.

Prolonged sitting can also be painful. When compared with standing, it doubles the amount of pressure exerted on the lower back.

Exercise can help protect against back pain. A regular exercise program not only improves the supply of blood and nutrition to the area, it also helps the back resist the fatigue that can lead to injury and pain. Research has shown aerobic exercise (walking, biking, swimming, etc.) to be most helpful. You must do this exercise long enough (at least twenty to thirty minutes), hard enough (increasing your breathing rate, but not to the point that you are panting), and frequently enough (at least three times a week) in order for it to be effective. In addition to aerobic exercise, strength training that utilizes many repetitions of the same exercise, and the lifting of a small weight, can help build endurance, allowing the back muscles to support the spine over longer periods of time.

If, after all your precautions, you still feel occasional back pain, you can obtain temporary relief. When the pain occurs suddenly, apply ice packs and take over-the-counter medicines like aspirin or ibuprofen to help decrease swelling. If the pain does not respond to these treatments and a little rest, consult your doctor.

In summary, here are some helpful hints to decrease and even avoid back pain:

  1. Exercise regularly, with an emphasis on aerobic exercise.

  2. Try not to sit for longer than forty-five minutes without standing and moving around.

  3. Get proper rest, eat a balanced diet, and obey the Word of Wisdom. (Smokers have two to three times the incidence of back problems.)

  4. Take rest breaks when your back muscles feel fatigued.

  5. Get help when lifting heavy objects, and use proper body mechanics as you lift.

  6. When lifting, hold objects close to your body. Don’t jerk or twist.

By following these simple rules, you can avoid most back pain. And if pain does occur, you can usually help return your back to a healthy condition.—Stephen Hunter, physical therapist, Murray, Utah