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Student Health Services

Back Pain

Back pain often occurs after minor injuries from lifting while bent over, from falls, sports, motor vehicle accidents, and sometimes without any known injury. Injuries may be muscle strains, and slipped (herniated) discs, broken bones, or arthritis in the bones. Old injuries are notorious for flaring back up. You also have to rule out other causes, however, such as kidney infections or abdominal organ problems.

What are the Symptoms?

Low back pain, stiffness, and muscle spasms are the most common symptoms, and are aggravated by walking, lifting and bending. Herniated discs may often start out looking like a muscle strain, but will often worsen to cause shooting pains down the leg(s), pain on coughing, an inability to sit, and sometimes weakness and numbness in the legs, or trouble urinating and difficulty having bowel movements.

Since the back contains the most muscle in your body, injuries do not get better very fast. Bed rest, balanced with appropriate gentle activities, is helpful for healing. When you are in bed, you should be flat on your back, with knees bent (use pillows under them) and on a firm mattress. Heat, in the form of a moist (or dry) heating pad or compresses will increase the blood flow to the area and aid in healing (don't burn yourself). Returning to careful activity as soon as you can get out of bed will shorten your healing time, so long as you don't over do it.

Medications used are usually anti-inflammatory drugs, like Ibuprofen, Naprosen (and others), and muscle relaxants. These should be taken on a regular basis as prescribed for the maximum effect. Anti-inflam-matory drugs are related to aspirin, should be taken with food in the stomach, and not taken if ulcers, blood thinners, stomach pains, or other drugs in the same class are present. Pain medications may also be used as necessary -- they tend to make you sleepy, so exercise caution!

When your symptoms are improving, slowly increasing your activity is O.K., and gentle back exercises may be begun. Do not go back to full activity until your clinician gives you the "O.K." If new or worsening symptoms arise (as above), notify your clinician immediately! Follow-up (as instructed) is very important.

What Else Can I Do?

Physical therapy can often help with back pain by using exercise, heat, ultrasound, electrical stimulation and other methods to relax the muscles and strengthen the muscle groups involved. The therapist can teach you to do many of the exercises at home, to help keep your back in good shape.