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When to see a doctor for back pain

As many as 80 percent of Americans will have an episode of back pain in their lifetime, according to research. How do you know when it’s time to see a doctor for your back issues? Michael Behr, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon at Piedmont, gives his take.

“For garden-variety back pain, most people don’t need to see a physician,” says Dr. Behr. “Time is a good healer. The vast majority of back pain cases will resolve with at-home treatment in four to six weeks.”

He recommends seeing a doctor right away if you have back pain that is:

  • Unrelenting or getting progressively worse
  • Accompanied by numbness, tingling or weakness in your lower extremities
  • Accompanied by trouble controlling your bladder or bowels
  • Worse at night

What type of back pain is most common?

Low back pain is the most common type of discomfort he sees among patients.

“Most low back pain I see is related to having a muscle strain from overuse or lifting improperly,” he says. “This causes inflammation in the low back.”

At-home treatment for back pain

Most people can treat simple back pain at home by:

  • Icing the injury. “Unless its excruciating pain you can’t manage, we usually recommend starting with ice,” he says. “Ice is better for inflammation for the first 24 to 48 hours after pain begins.”
  • Staying active. “Keep moving if you can,” says Dr. Behr. “We used to put people on bedrest for back pain, but now we really try to promote staying active within limits. The more you do nothing, the worse it can get.”
  • Stretching. Light stretching can help tight muscles and can prevent back pain in the first place.
  • Taking anti-inflammatory medication. “Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen, can help as long as you haven’t had any previous issues from using them.  Also, be sure they don’t interfere with current medications you are taking,” he says.

If pain persists after you’ve treated it for four to six weeks, Dr. Behr recommends seeing a physician.

How to prevent back pain

“You can prevent back pain by practicing good posture and staying active,” he says. “If you are sedentary all day, it’s important to exercise. Focus on strengthening your abs as well as your lower back — a strong core supports your back and can reduce pain.”

He adds that stretching regularly and even using a standing desk can help, too.

Check out these helpful tips to help you be more active during the day.