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Understanding and Avoiding Back Pain

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By: Joseph C. Koval, M.D.
January 13, 2012

Nearly 80 percent of adults experience back pain at least once in their lifetime.  With symptoms that range from dull discomfort to sharp pain or radiating numbness, back pain has many causes.  And with the predictable rise of back injuries during winter weather, now is a good time to think about protecting your back.

The term back pain is a broad phrase that has various meanings for individuals.  Because the back is so complex, pain can be caused by a host of problems or injuries.  Remember, it’s always best to consult with your physician, who is in the best position to diagnose your symptoms and offer a corrective course of treatment.

Some causes include: mechanical problems, such as when a spinal disc deteriorates due to age or strenuous overwork; injuries, such as sprains, fractures, muscle tears or ligament damage; acquired conditions, such as arthritis, scoliosis, pregnancy or kidney stones; and, rarely, infection or tumors.

There are two types of risk factors for the development of  back pain: uncontrollable and controllable.  Uncontrollable risk factors include age and gender.   Men and people middle-aged or older tend to suffer more back pain.  Also, having a personal or family history of back pain can suggest future troubles.  Individuals born with spine problems and those who have had compression fractures of the spine or have undergone back surgery also have greater risk.  And pregnancy is considered an uncontrollable risk factor for back pain.

Some risk factors, however, can be controlled.  Controllable factors include a sedentary lifestyle, being overweight, smoking, poor posture, performing strenuous work without proper movement or body mechanics, and emotional stress.

To prevent back pain, individuals should focus on reducing or eliminating controllable risk factors.  Quitting smoking and maintaining a healthy weight are beneficial for everyone.  And even mild regular exercise can help keep your back healthy.

Decide which controllable risk factors affect you, and make the changes needed to keep your back strong.  Many insurers like Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania (BCNEPA) offer their members wellness and support programs to help them make such changes.  At BCNEPA, for example, our Blue Health Solutions program is available to all covered individuals to help them manage chronic conditions, quit smoking or simply start down the path of a healthier lifestyle.

Because we’re in the midst of winter, it’s also important to be aware of how wintry weather can impact your back.  Slips, falls and shoveling snow can lead to back pain.  When you venture onto ice or snow, wear shoes with firm grip soles.  Spread sand, ashes or other non-slip material on walkways, and be smart about shoveling.  Push snow with a shovel, if possible.  If you must lift it, bend at the knees, take small scoops and throw the snow forward.  Avoid twisting or throwing over your shoulder.

As with any medical condition, speak with your physician if you have questions about back pain. By being smart and knowing your risks, you can prevent back pain from getting in the way of activities you enjoy.

For more information about back pain, visit or speak with your health professional.

Joseph C. Koval, M.D., is the Medical Director – Quality Management at Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania.