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5 Secrets to Easing Back Pain

What you need to know to eliminate, reduce, and prevent back pain.

By Sierra Filucci, Caring.com contributing editor
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Most of us will experience serious back pain at some point in our lives. The New England Journal of Medicine puts the numbers at 8 out of 10 Americans, with 31 million people in pain at any given time. Back pain is second only to the cold or flu as the most common reason people seek a doctor's advice.

The good news is that most people recover from serious back pain -- studies say 90 percent will get better, most within seven weeks. But what can we do to reduce, eliminate, or prevent back pain? Many patients and doctors recommend over-the-counter or prescription anti-inflammatory drugs -- ibuprofen, naproxen, aspirin, and others -- when back pain flare-ups occur. Ice packs also come in handy. Below, five secrets to help you stay pain free.

1. Trace the pain to its source.

That tight, throbbing knot in your upper back? It might not have anything to do with heavy lifting or playing too much golf. The source of the pain might be somewhere else entirely. Like your feet.

High heels, shoes without enough arch support, or physical problems like flat feet or high arches all can contribute to back pain. For example, patients with exaggerated arches often experience pain throughout the body, including the back, because their feet don't absorb shock well, says Mark Wolpa, a podiatrist in Berkeley, California.

Also, a surprising number of people have legs of slightly different lengths. Wolpa says about 80 percent of his patients show signs of "limb length discrepancy," some caused by uneven bone length and others due to long-term positioning problems, where muscles have developed unevenly, shortening one side of the body. This uneven stance throws the whole body off balance, causing one part to compensate for another, often resulting in pain.

Another possible source of back pain is nerve damage. Ask your doctor if an EMG (electromyogram) test is in order, especially if the option of back surgery is on the table. If a doctor rules out specific disc, nerve, or malformation issues, it might be time to visit an alternative medical practitioner.

Massage therapists, chiropractors, and acupuncturists are known to take a more holistic approach to treating pain, which can involve asking questions about multiple aspects of your life, from nutrition to emotions. Check your health insurance plan to see if these treatments are covered, even partially.

What you can do:

  • Consider acupuncture or chiropractic care. Ask for recommendations from your primary care doctor as well as friends and others. If the same name keeps popping up, it's more likely you'll have a positive experience with that practitioner. Whether it's acupuncture or chiropractic care, if your first experience isn't positive, try a different practitioner whose technique works better for you.

  • Find a massage therapist skilled in therapeutic or medical massage (as opposed to simple feel-good massage). Personal recommendations are always best, so ask friends or colleagues for names. Neighborhood or regional e-mail groups or websites such as Yelp.com can help narrow down choices. Avoid most spas, where practitioners tend to focus on a soothing experience rather than on relieving a specific ailment.