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Treating Your Physical and Emotional Pain

Taking medication or having surgery can address the physical cause of your pain, but if you're anxious or depressed, it won't solve your entire problem. "You need to treat the structural problem and the psychological problem. Both need to be addressed at the same time," Schofferman says.

For people with mild to moderate low back pain, a supervised exercise program may be enough to treat physical and psychological symptoms. "Many times when the person exercises under supervision…their depression improves, their anxiety can improve, and their avoidance improves," says Schofferman. The goal of these programs is to strengthen the muscles of your back and the areas that support your back (such as the abs), and teach you how to do everyday activities -- like lifting and bending -- without hurting your back.

If you have more chronic, severe low back pain, it helps to see not just one doctor, but a whole team of experts that can include your regular doctor, an orthopaedic doctor or physiatrist, as well as a chronic pain specialist, physical therapist, and psychologist. All of these specialists should have experience in treating chronic pain.  

Plan to be an active participant in your treatment. Keep a journal of your pain, so you can start to see patterns -- when the pain tends to occur and what triggers it. Then talk to your doctor to learn about the different therapies available. Behavioral therapy can help you cope with your pain and deal with any limitations or depression you're experiencing as a result.

Relaxation techniques like deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and biofeedback can teach you how to ease the muscle tension that's contributing to your low back pain. Your doctor may also prescribe medications to relieve pain, help you sleep, or ease your depression and anxiety.

Work with your doctor to come up with a comfortable level of physical activity. Jamison describes two types of back pain patients. "There are the folks who throw in the towel and refuse to get off the couch or bed…and those who refuse to sit down and pace themselves." Neither approach is going to help your back feel better. Don't do more than you can comfortably handle, but don't become a couch potato either. Exercise is actually good for managing low back pain and stress for many people. However, depending on your health and medical reason for back pain, certain exercises may be harmful. Make sure to discuss an exercise regimen with your doctor first if you have chronic back pain.

It's important to keep not only your body -- but also your mind active. "We know that distraction is really important," Jamison says. "If it's nothing but you and the pain and the four walls, your pain can loom pretty large. Keep your mind occupied -- that does help people cope with the condition." Get together with friends, go to the movies or a show, or take a walk outside to keep your mind off your pain.

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