What is Chronic Back Pain?
Chronic, or ongoing, back pain, is a common complaint among adults. It occurs when nerves continue to signal pain, even after the cause of pain—such as an injury or illness—has been resolved.
Research continues to reveal important information about how chronic pain works, how to treat it, and how to help people manage it. While it’s not common for pain to disappear entirely, it can be reduced so it has less impact on your life. Just as important, management strategies can help you function better despite a certain level of pain that may remain.
What can I temporarily do to ease my chronic back pain?
Try these suggestions to temporarily reduce your back pain, keeping in mind these are not long term solutions:
- Keep moving
- Find a comfortable position
- Apply heat or cold
- Anti-inflammatories or acetaminophen
Long-term back pain management
Pain management for chronic back pain aims to reduce your level of back pain and minimize its effect on your life, so you can do more of the things that make life meaningful and enjoyable. To develop a pain management plan, follow these steps:
- Assess the situation with your doctor
- Work with your doctor to make a plan based on your pain goals
- Follow up with your doctor
- Find effective self-help activities
- Be patient as you try different approaches
Additional self-care strategies
Self-care can be more important than medication or pain treatment, because it helps you take control. There are many self-care strategies to reduce chronic back pain and make it more manageable, and what works best is different for each person. Try a few of these strategies until you find solutions that work for you.
- Track your pain to better gauge and reduce your pain triggers
- Getting better sleep
- Balance activity and rest
- Eat healthy
- Manage stress
If you have ongoing back pain that continuously persists, or goes away and returns, you may be suffering from chronic back pain.
When to See a Doctor
See your doctor immediately or go to the nearest emergency room if you have any of these symptoms:
- Difficulty urinating or controlling urine
- Blood in your urine
- Loss of bowel control
Make an appointment to see your doctor if you develop any of these symptoms:
- Sudden, severe pain
- Severe back pain that gets worse over several weeks instead of getting better
- Back pain that lasts longer than eight weeks or returns regularly
- Numbness or weakness in your legs
Chronic back pain can develop from an injury, surgery, infection, or other medical conditions. For example:
- After an injury or surgery, nerve fibers can change so they no longer function properly.
- Certain areas of the brain can change over time, so the brain creates pain signals on its own.
- An ongoing medical condition such as rheumatoid arthritis can continue to cause pain for some people. In some cases, what started the pain or why it continues isn’t clear.
Diagnosis and Tests
While doctors can often measure symptoms using blood or lab tests, this isn’t true with chronic back pain. The only reliable source of information about your pain is YOU. Your doctor needs to know about:
- Your pain history. How did your pain start? What treatments or self-care measures have you tried? How well did they work?
- The nature of your pain. Is it achy, tingly, sharp? How does it change over time? What situations act as “triggers “to make your pain worse?
- How pain impacts your life. How does it affect your sleep, your mood, your work, your activities at home?
Pain can make muscles tighten or go into spasm, so your body is more tense. You move less, so you become less fit and flexible. This in turn can increase your pain. Physical therapy helps to break this vicious cycle. Physical therapy can relieve pain, promote healing, and help you move and function better.
A physical therapist will create a treatment plan designed to meet your needs. The plan might include:
- Guided exercises. These include stretches and exercises that help you regain flexibility, strength, and conditioning, so you can do more.
- Help with “body mechanics. “This involves learning and practicing ways to sit, stand, and walk that ease your pain.
- An exercise plan to use at home. This type of plan is unique to your condition and needs, and aims to reduce your pain by building flexibility and strength in key areas.
Injections and Procedures
For some types of chronic back pain, procedures might be recommended to help diagnose what’s wrong, to treat pain, or both. Because they involve using a needle or scalpel, these treatments are sometimes called invasive therapies. They include injections, spinal cord stimulation, and implanted drug-delivery systems (“pain pumps”).
- Injections that put medication directly into the painful “hot spot”
- Implanted device or “pain pumps” that delivers mild electrical signals to the spinal cord
Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM)
The phrase complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is used for treatments usually offered by providers that are not in the traditional realm of medicine. While people often report that CAM therapies help with chronic pain, these therapies have limited scientific evidence to support them.
Opioid medications (sometimes just called “opioids” or “pain pills”) are strong medications designed to reduce chronic back pain so you can function better. But opioids also pose unique risks because of the way they affect the brain.
While you may not be able to prevent chronic back pain, there are steps you can take to reduce painful flare-ups.
- Practice effective self-care strategies
- Seek support when needed
- Use your medication and pain management plan
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This medical information is provided by Intermountain Healthcare. It has not been developed to replace medical advice provided by your health care provider.