Build a Better Back: Pain Remedies That Work

Why good backs go bad, what to do if yours starts hurting, and the latest on remedies -- from painkillers to surgery.
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Understanding Back Pain

You're lifting groceries -- or bending to tie a shoelace -- when all of a sudden your back goes out. Or maybe you're just sitting at your desk when your lower back starts aching. Backaches can come on suddenly or gradually and their cause can be maddeningly hard to pinpoint. "Most people try to blame their pain on one thing they did or didn't do, when it's usually the buildup of a number of factors that is responsible," says Sheila A. Dugan, MD, associate professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Rush University Medical Center, in Chicago.

"For a vast number of people, back pain comes from multiple sources, and we're just not sure why it hurts so much," says orthopedic surgeon Howard S. An, MD, director of spine surgery at Rush. What's more, what works for one person may have no effect on another, making the search for relief a byzantine journey from orthopedist to chiropractor, rheumatologist to physiatrist (a physician specializing in rehabilitation medicine).

In the process Americans spend $85.9 billion a year on coping with back pain, according to a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Approximately 80 percent of us have at least one episode, making it the second most-frequent health complaint after the common cold.

"The irony is, most back problems can be prevented," says Stephen H. Hochschuler, MD, chairman of the Texas Back Institute, in Plano. "If you stay in shape, watch your weight, and are careful about how you move and use your body, you have a good chance of avoiding or lessening the severity of back problems." Use the following pages to see whether your habits could be setting you up for a backache -- and to find out what you should do if pain strikes.

Continued on page 2:  The Anatomy of Your Back


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