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Low Back Pain Shouldn't Sideline You

Explore the common but under treated and misunderstood issues that accompany chronic back pain in our Back Pain Series. Part 1 explains the latest treatments that could relieve that aching back.
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Many Penn State alumni fondly remember David K., now 34, as the student who crawled to class. Mired by back pain throughout his four years of college, David saw tons of doctors from top neurosurgeons to psychologists for the pain. Instead of listening to the popular college music of his day like REM, he listened to the soothing sounds of pain expert John E. Sarno, MD, on cassette tapes called Mind Over Back Pain when he drove his Mustang around the college campus.

 

"If you don't have chronic back pain, you can't possibly imagine what it feels like," he says. "It's unbearable -- literally." He says that there were many times he couldn't walk and would have to crawl from his fraternity house all the way to class so he would not miss a midterm or final exam. "My fraternity brothers made a lot of fun of me," he says. "Still do."

 

About 80% of Americans -- or four in five -- experience low back pain at some point in their lives and understand David's plight all too well. Many people with chronic low back pain are working age and for them, back pain is the most frequent case of lost productivity. Treatment for back pain costs roughly $100 billion a year, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons in Rosemont, Ill.

 

But new developments may signify hope, help, and healing for millions of back pain sufferers including David K., my husband.

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First Things First

Without exception, the first step for people with back pain is to "[get] a good history and try to establish the onset and aggravating factors," says Joel R. Saper, MD, director of Michigan Head Pain and Neurological Institute in Ann Arbor, Mich.

 

"A big mistake is to see a back pain problem in a narrow perspective," he says. "Doctors have to know the overall health, past experience with any pain syndrome, what precipitated it and what it has responded to at this point, and do a proper examination of the back and a general medical examination," he says.

 

Your best bet is to seek treatment from a "comprehensive program that specializes in pain with a wide range of services available so that treatment is determined by what you need -- not by what's available," he says.

 

"If you have back pain that lasts six weeks or more, seeing a specialist is a reasonable thing to do and the main reason is to make sure it's not a more serious condition that presents as back pain such as infection, tumor, fracture, or aortic aneurysm," says Scott D. Boden, MD, an orthopaedic surgeon and director of The Emory Orthopaedics and Spine Center in Atlanta.

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