The following was written by Kyle F. Coffey, PT, DPT, a registered physical therapist with Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates:
It just takes one stubborn snow bank to put you in pain for the rest of the winter. Shoveling is a burden all New Englanders have to bear, but you don’t have to put the burden on your back.
Throughout the winter months, the number of people who experience acute low back pain typically increases. Acute low back pain can be caused by trauma such as lifting something too heavy, twisting the wrong way, a sudden jolt, or by medical problems such as arthritis or a disc herniation.
While this might seem severe, acute lower back pain should go away relatively quickly and can often be treated at home. Most people who suffer see their pain subside between a few weeks and three months. Symptoms can range from muscle aches, shooting pain, nagging pain, limited flexibility, decreased range of motion, or an inability to stand straight.
Many cases of acute low back pain can be treated at home. Keep in mind, however, that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to back pain. Here are a few suggestions for at-home treatment:
- Bed rest should be limited to one to two days at most: it’s important to stay active and restore proper muscle function and strength
- While on bed rest, get up and walk around every few hours: even if it hurts, the movement won’t damage your back
- Use either heat or ice to decrease pain and inflammation: the general rule is ice for the first two days and either heat or ice afterwards, depending on which provides the most relief for you
- Take over-the-counter medicines like Ibuprofen (Advil), Acetaminophen (Tylenol), or aspirin as needed
- Exercise as tolerated and stretch prior to performing any physical activity
Depending on the severity or the duration of the low back pain, you may need to make an appointment with your doctor for a thorough exam. In most cases, your doctor might prescribe medications to help reduce pain or inflammation. However, if you experience loss of muscle strength or feeling in your legs, loss of bladder or bowel control, increased pain after two days of bed rest, have chills or a fever over 102˚F, have a burning feeling when urinating or have blood in the urine, or experience stomach pain, you should contact your doctor immediately.
Maintaining good posture and beneficial lifestyle habits such as regular exercise, weight control and stress reduction can help prevent injury and maintain a healthy back. When exercising or performing strenuous physical activity, always stretch beforehand and only stay active as long as you can tolerate any pain you may feel. How your “hold” your body can play a major factor in back health: always maintain good posture while walking, standing or sitting. Mattresses and chairs with good lumbar support can also positively impact your back health.
When clearing snow this winter, remember to lift using your legs and not your back. With these tips and more information on the Harvard Vanguard website you’ll be ready to face whatever winter has in store.