Back Pain: Coping vs Treating
You’ve just woken up with a backache. It could be mild, possibly debilitating, but undoubtedly annoying. Depending on the obligations you may or may not have today, you might lay catatonic for the next few hours or you might reach for an anti-inflammatory before starting a rather annoying workday.
If you do either of those things, you’re coping with the discomfort and not actually treating back pain. And ultimately, that’s going to be the first course of action no matter what. We obviously have to cope to the best of our abilities until we make it to the refrigerator to fetch an ice pack. Or to the doctor’s office, or the hot tub, or the garage to fetch a car buffer. Whichever treatment you prefer!
But let’s get a little more specific on the differences between coping with the back pain versus treating back pain. Also, let’s address why coping alone really isn’t helpful.
What is The Difference Between Coping and Treating Back Pain?
Coping with Back Pain
When you’re coping with back pain, you could say you’re fighting the ache instead of nourishing it.
You might cope by trying to ignore the backache and carrying on with your day. This will likely worsen the back pain and even lead to other bodily harm. Muscles from other parts of the body will have to compensate, preventing the back from healing and straining the surrounding muscles. The poor mood that accompanies backaches won’t help either, since stress hinders the production of pain-reducing chemicals.
Ok, so pretending the back pain isn’t there might be the worst way to cope. There appears to be no benefit to just pushing through it. In the event that you are ignoring it and then say to yourself, “this might be one of the worst ideas I’ve ever had,” you opt to reach for an OTC pain reliever. That’s a reasonable first step unless your doctor has told you to steer clear of blood thinners. But even then, drugs offer only temporary relief, making them just another means of coping. Sure, the lessened pain will make you calmer and keep your other body parts from overcompensating, but it does nothing to reveal the root of the problem. If you can’t pinpoint what caused the backache in the first place, you’re likely to encounter the cause again.
Now, the drugs are wearing off and you’ve taken the maximum recommended dose. One more pill and you risk an overdose. Being responsible, you decide to rest for a while. Wise choice! Rest is a crucial part of just about every treatment plan! But here’s where it gets tricky… your way of resting might be a cause of the back pain itself. Maybe you’re sleeping too much, which is linked to back pain as well as other health issues; headaches, depression, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Perhaps your sleeping position, mattress, and/or pillow are playing a role in your back pain. A restful sleep does wonders for your health, but surrounding factors can be harmful.
The takeaway about coping with back pain is this: if a health professional hasn’t been consulted, you probably won’t find the root. The back pain can’t be treated if the root is unknown. Coping alone can hinder relief, worsen the pain, and leave you exposed to the cause of the backache.
Treating Back Pain
The first step of treating a backache is the step completely missing from coping with a backache… I know, you just read the passage above and therefore know the missing step: finding the root of the backache.
Taking that first step requires a consultation with a health professional. Give your doctor, physical therapist, chiropractor, acupuncturist, or massage therapist a visit and go from there. They’ll ask about your activities of daily living, take bodily assessments, and make a treatment plan tailored to your individual needs.
Let’s talk about the different causes of backaches and what the ideal treatment could be. Please note though, you shouldn’t self diagnose and just start one of the treatments below. See a professional first, as treating a misdiagnosis might not be therapeutic.
Very common cause, if not the most common cause. Your upper back muscles such as the trapezius, rhomboids, and teres could be taking a hit. Or maybe those mid-back/lower back muscles like the latissimus and serratus are feeling rough. Or it could be that those up-and-down erectors have just had enough. On your own, it’s hard to determine which of these muscles is causing the back pain.
But muscular strains don’t just happen on their own. This cause of back pain has its very own causes, and there are many:
- Working at a desk
- Improper form during exercise
- Poor body mechanics in general
- Unideal sleep position
- Repeated heavy lifting
The strained back muscles are treated by a professional, and a detailed treatment plan is made to address the cause of the muscle strain.
- Chiropractic adjustment – Postural imbalances or mobility limitations causing back pain are treated
- Massage – Deep tissue massage, if tolerable for the patient, is best for breaking up adhesions
- Acupuncture – Special points in the body correspond with each muscular group
- Physical therapy – Strengthening a mobilizing the back muscles will lead to a reduced risk of further injury
- Hot/Cold Therapy – Start with a hot pack to loosen up the adhesions, follow up with a cold pack to reduce swelling and inflammation. 15 minutes for each pack, 3-4 times per day.
- Home remedies – Self-massage and stretching are common recommendations
- Self-massage with tennis balls, water bottles, rolling pins, or car buffers
- Stretch AFTER the back muscles have been loosened, either through massage or heat therapy (stretching a tight muscle can make the muscle even tighter)
- Rest – Stay away from the back exercises for a little while. Take whatever means necessary to rest comfortably.
- Find out what type of sleeper you are and make sure you have the right pillow
- If the mattress is old, it might be time for a new one
- 6-8 hours of sleep is ideal
- Yoga – Or any activity that improves posture, strength, balance, and flexibility
Have you had a life-changing event? Did you read the news today? Do you just so happen to work in customer service?
I touched base on emotional stress a little bit in the coping section. When you’re stressed out, your brain is constantly sensing danger. An on-guard brain is preparing your body to fight or run from a threat. Increased heart rate, spiked blood pressure, shallow breathing are present, and the pain-reducing chemicals aren’t flowing the way they should. In addition to a brain ache, you’re getting a backache. And likely other aches, too.
- Massage – Everyone has a different definition of “relaxing massage”. But the recommended massage for a stress-related backache is a Swedish massage.
- Acupuncture – There are points for treating back pain itself, as well as points for emotional relaxation
- Rest – You will see this one across the board. Poor sleep is correlated, as stated above, with depression as well as other emotional disturbances
Bulging or Herniated Disc
An x-ray, MRI, myelogram, EMG, or CT scan will be necessary for diagnosis. The pain varies on the location of the bulging or slipped disc, and often described as sharp or tingly. Sometimes surgery is required to treat the disc, but nonsurgical treatments are often sought first.
- Chiropractic adjustment
- Physical therapy
- Rest – Limit movements that worsen the pain.
- Long periods of sitting – This can place a detrimental amount of pressure on the spine
- Dietary changes – Foods rich in calcium and vitamin D promote bone health
Arthritis and/or Osteoporosis
Back pain caused by arthritis or osteoporosis is treatable, though the conditions themselves can’t be cured.
- Chiropractic adjustment – Special measures will have to be taken, as deep or sudden movements might not be helpful
- Massage – A physician should be consulted before a massage takes place. Patients can handle different levels of pressure depending on the severity of their illness.
- Physical therapy
- Dietary changes – As is the case with slipped discs, foods rich in calcium and vitamin D will promote bone health and reduce chance of bone-related back injury
When a backache is the result of a car accident or fall, there really isn’t a one-treatment-fits-all for patients in this category.
To be redundant, the course of action depends on the root of the backache. Which part of the back was most impacted by the accident? Are there any bruises or fractures? Is the patient able to lay down on a massage table? These are all questions a doctor can answer and the treatment will continue from there.
Coping with back pain only masks the problem, while treating back pain leads to recovery. Treating back pain involves a professional assessment, medical intervention, and a carefully followed rehabilitative plan.
Stay happy, healthy, and do away with the back pain!
Author, Licensed Massage Therapist
Katrina Jenkins graduated from Towson University in 2013 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Health Science and worked as a nurse’s aide briefly before pursuing her true passion. She graduated from the Massage Therapy Institute of Colorado in April 2016 with honors and completed the Touch of Healers Scholarship Program the following summer. She has been a part of the Moyer Total Wellness Team since the summer of 2017.
Bohinski, Robert. “Herniated Lumbar Disc, Herniated Disc, Ruptured Lumbar Disc, Bulging Disc, Back Surgery,: Mayfield Brain & Spine.” Mayfieldclinic.com, Sept. 2018, mayfieldclinic.com/pe-hldisc.htm.
DerSarkissian, Carol. “Oversleeping Side Effects: Is Too Much Sleep Harmful?” WebMD, WebMD, 15 Jan. 2020, www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/physical-side-effects-oversleeping.
Mayo Clinic Staff. “Back Pain.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 21 Aug. 2020, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/back-pain/symptoms-causes/syc-20369906.
Canva by ChesiireCat