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Northwestern Memorial Hospital July 16, 2012

Northwestern Medicine physician offers tips for managing back pain

CHICAGO, IL – Eight out of every 10 Americans will be affected by back pain this year. Disturbing a person’s sleep, social life, and quality of work, back pain can easily turn the most enjoyable occasions into nightmares. Back pain impacts people of all ages ranging from senior citizens to children and young adults. Even the fittest athletes can feel the aches and pains of a strained muscle or herniated discs. Northwestern Medicine® spine surgeon Wellington Hsu, MD, offers his tips for avoiding back pain and easy lifestyle modifications that can alleviate existing pain.

“Back discomfort results from mechanical issues, traumatic injuries, infections, or diseases,” said Hsu, who is an orthopaedic surgeon at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and an assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery and neurological surgery at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “While there are many different causes of back pain, people should recognize that the pain is a symptom, not a disease. Learning simple ways to protect your spine and back can lead to better overall health.”

Hsu offers the following tips to live a back pain free life:

Too perfect of a posture - In the case of good posture, it is sometimes possible to have too much of a good thing. Stressing the spine too straight for extended periods of time can strain back muscles and create problems. The key to having good posture keeping all body parts aligned and relaxed. When sitting in a chair, both feet should remain planted on the ground with knees at a 90 degree angle. Correct and comfortable posture can decrease lower back pain, improve breathing and even inspire confidence.

Dream of a better back - Many people believe bed rest can cure any ailment. While sleep does restore the body, over resting can sometimes cause back discomfort. Extended time lying on extremely firm or soft mattresses can force the spine into awkward positions, worsening back aches. “After an injury or when experiencing isolated back pain, rest for up to 48 hours then contact a physician,” said Hsu. “Weeks spent resting, unless recommended by a doctor, will only weaken your back.”

Cut the commute – Approximately 1.5 million Chicagoans use public transportation every day. Many commuters switch their footwear during the commute to walk in something more comfortable than heels or dress shoes. This protects the back only if the footwear is supportive. “Walking far distances to the train or bus stop in flip flops, or other shoes without much support, does not help rid the pain. In fact, it may worsen an aching back,” said Hsu. “Choose shoes that support your feet and most importantly are in good condition.”

Avoid extra baggage – Carrying a bag that exceeds 10 percent of a person’s body weight strains the spine and causes it to curve. If carrying a change of clothes, shoes, and lap top is a necessity, chose a bag with a backpack fit that distributes weight evenly. If the bag only has one strap, choose a bag with wide straps that crosses over the body.

Food and fitness- Obesity contributes to heart disease, diabetes, and even back pain. The pressure of excess weight on the body strains the lower back creating daily throbbing pain. Eating a diet rich in fiber, vitamins, and low in sugar and fat provides energy to exercise and maintain a healthy weight. Exercising regularly can also strengthen core and back muscles which protects against injury and allows for more activity without an achy back.

Pay attention to your body - Pain is the body’s way of alerting something is wrong, which means chronic back pain should never be ignored. “If you find yourself unable to participate in activities because of pain, or pain that wakes you up at night, this indicates a deeper issue than just a stiff back,” said Hsu. “Chronic pain could be the result of a spinal problem, like a bulging disc or scoliosis, or even something genetic. If you suffer from long lasting and frequent back discomfort, make an appointment to see your physician.”

Treatment options for back pain range from physical therapy to massage and acupuncture to injections and surgeries. “Seeking medical attention early will help your physician figure out the best treatment option to fit your lifestyle and medical needs,” said Hsu.

Northwestern Medicine is the shared vision that joins Northwestern Memorial HealthCare and Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in a collaborative effort to transform medicine through quality healthcare, academic excellence and scientific discovery.

Learn more about treatment options for spine conditions.

Media Contact

Megan McCann
Manager, Media Relations
Northwestern Memorial HealthCare and Northwestern Memorial Hospital 312.926.5900