Garden-Variety Back Pain

Prevention and self-care may be the key to dealing with common back pain.

There are a million ways to injure a back—and the ways in which the body compensates for back pain are nearly endless. (Bent over? Frozen upright? Listening to the left or right?)

Still, says Daryll Christopher Dykes, a fellow of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, most cases fall into the category that he describes as “garden-variety” lower back pain. “The disks that provide cushioning between the vertebrae are made of up proteins and collagen and structured in a way that allows them to trap water and stay nice and plump,” he explains. “But with age, those proteins begin to dry out. You start to see natural degeneration and wear on the vertebrae and on the facet joints that connect them. If you injure one of these susceptible disks, it sets off an inflammatory response. You start to feel muscle spasms, soft-tissue damage, and then lots of pain.”

For this reason, “At least 80 percent of adults will experience a flare-up of back pain in their lifetime,” Dykes says. If your pain is garden-variety, you’ll find that there is little effective treatment in Western medicine.

Medications can pose problems such as side effects and dependency issues. Physical therapy can help, but insurance companies like to limit its use. And surgery is the worst-case scenario, Dykes says—a grim estimation coming from a spinal surgeon.

A better route, Dykes explains to his patients, is self-care, which includes finding an appropriate form of exercise and sticking with it. He thinks that yoga is an excellent choice. “It’s all about risk management,” Dykes says. “Back pain can be random; it can be nondiscriminatory. Anything you can do to increase flexibility and core strength will lower your risk of having an episode of back pain—and [it] will speed up the recovery process when you do.”