By Susan Korbel, Pure Matters
"The way you recover from back pain really depends on the severity of your injury," says Jerold E. Lancourt, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon in Dallas. "The most important thing initially is to establish a diagnosis."
Note your symptoms
Minor back pain often resolves itself within a day or two. If your pain persists, however, Dr. Lancourt recommends talking to an orthopedic surgeon or your family physician. The doctor will examine you, note how your body moves, determine whether you have any pain down your legs and take a medical history.
"Make sure you mention all your symptoms to your doctor, such as whether a fever or nausea accompanied your back pain. The pain may be secondary to another condition," he says.
Many back problems are caused by a muscle pull or strain. The usual treatment includes taking pain relievers and/or muscle relaxants and, perhaps, limiting certain activities until the muscle heals.
Consider your options
For more serious back injuries, such as a herniated or ruptured disk or a pinched nerve, surgery may be necessary.
But, surprisingly, most disk injuries heal themselves without surgery. "The only reason to have emergency back surgery is when the pain is accompanied by severe or progressive motor weakness or involves bowel or bladder problems," he says. "In these cases, it's crucial to relieve pressure from the nerves in order to retain their function."
If your pain is severe and persistent, your doctor may suggest diagnostic tests, such as an MRI or CT scan.
If you have surgery, your recovery regimen begins with wound healing, which takes about two weeks. "During that time, you need to be very careful," Dr. Lancourt says. After that, he recommends beginning a progressive walking program to promote muscle strength.
Walk short distances initially and make sure you don't walk so far you can't get home safely if you get tired. As your strength increases, your physician or physical therapist will suggest you supplement your walks with gentle back exercises.
Talk to your physician if intense pain recurs. "There is a recurrence rate when a disk is removed because pieces of it remain in the back," he says. "So, for the first couple of months after surgery, it's important not to lift, twist or bend, all of which could re-injure your back."
Back to exercise
The best predictor for future back pain is previous back pain -- so once you're on the road to recovery, the best way to ensure a healthy back is to approach activity sensibly.
"My biggest concern is that my patients can live without pain, and my second is that they can do their jobs. My last concern is whether they can play golf," Dr. Lancourt says, jokingly. "Of course, we try to get people back to the sports they enjoy, but they may have to modify their techniques under the guidance of their rehabilitation therapist."
Dr. Lancourt offers this prescription for lifelong back health: Do 20 minutes of stretching and strengthening exercises for your back, neck and shoulders five days a week. "Don't let yourself stiffen up," he says. "Start in your 20s and keep it up for the next 70 years."