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Oh, That Aching Back

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Who among us has not felt the nagging pain of an aching back? Very few, if the statistics are to be believed. Back pain affects up to seventy-percent of adults in developed countries (probably more in undeveloped countries where back-breaking labor is the norm). It even beat out Bob Woodward for the coveted cover story of Newsweek recently.

As common as it is, though, not all back pain is the same. It can be caused by a multitude of ills – by muscle strain, by the wearing down of the little jelly cushions between the vertebrae ( degenerative disc disease), or by spontaneous compression fractures. It can be caused by arthritis in the small joints between the vertebrae. And sometimes the fault isn’t even with the back, but with internal organs whose pain signals the brain can’t distinguish from the back. (This is where a doctor comes in handy, to help sort out all of these potential causes.)

Most of the time, though, back pain comes and goes after we’ve sat too long in a funny position or worked a little too hard in the yard. And most of the time, it’s a self-limited problem that requires only a tincture of time and some ibuprofen to cure it. But for a small percentage of people, that nagging back ache is a constant companion. And an irritating one at that. It’s for these people that rheumatologist Harris McIlawain has written his book The Pain-Free Back : 6 Simple Steps to End Pain and Reclaim Your Active Life.

The six steps are fairly basic – exercising, eating right to keep your weight down, basic back hygiene ( proper body mechanics), relaxation techniques, “healing touch” ( accupuncture, massage, physical therpay, chiropractic maniuplation, etc.), and, in an attempt to appeal to the health craze of the day – alternative medications (herbs and supplements in this case.) It’s a veritable smorgasboard of back pain therapies. Much of it is very good advice for those suffering from chronic mechanical or arthritic back pain. There are exercises for strengthening and stretching worn out back muscles, which can be very effective in treating and managing chronic back pain. There are even suggestions on comfortable sexual positions (with illustrations!)

There are, however, few exercises in the book designed explicitly for those who suffer from pain caused by herniated discs. That particular problem responds best to a series of flexion and extension exercises that are, unfortunately, copyrighted. The other weakness is the list of alternative medications that can be used to help relieve back pain. Although they’re probably safer than knocking back several Oxycontin a day, most of them are unproven and untested. While taking an unproven medication only risks wasting your money if it’s ineffective, taking an untested one risks losing your health if it turns up with unexpected side effects.

The rest of the book, however, has much to offer – from what to look for and expect in a physical therapist or chiropractor to recipes for low-calorie meals. It may not cure your aching back, but it could help you live with it.

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About sssmith

  • Thanks for this Sydney. I herniated my L5 disc about 8 years ago and have lived with the pain ever since. Most days it’s not bad, but it’s always there. I’ll have to look these books up.

  • Eric Olsen

    Thanks Dr. Syd, more great practical advice. I am very grateful we have you keeping an eye on things medical.