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OH, YOUR ACHING BACK! NEW ADVANCES EASING CHRONIC PAIN

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When Elizabeth Taylor was 12, she fell off a horse during the filming of "National Velvet." That was her first experience with the aching and undependable back that has plagued her ever since.

In her 20s, Taylor also developed sciatica. Eventually, she had two back operations but surgery didn't permanently ease her pain.Taylor is not alone. A recent article in Ladies' Home Journal notes an estimated 80 percent of Americans experience low back pain at some point in their lives. Thanks to a number of recent advances, however, they may no longer be forced to endure chronic pain.

Any patient who is told she needs back surgery should get a second opinion, according to Dr. Fred Brown, director of the spinal and chronic back-pain clinic at the University of Chicago. In fact, more and more doctors are suggesting other options before recommending surgery.

First, they may pinpoint the causes of back stress. New imaging techniques, including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computerized axial tomography (CAT scan), can rule out diseases and disorders of the kidneys, uterus, ovaries, bowel or blood vessels, which can contribute to back pain. Doctors may also analyze a patient's daily activities, such as improper lifting techniques, poor posture, foot problems and curvature of the spine.

In the past, back therapy has often included highly addictive painkillers such as Percocet and Percodan, or muscle-relaxing tranquilizers such as Valium. Today, more and more doctors are relying on anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen, which ease swelling and pain. They also use mild muscle relaxants such as carisoprodol and cyclobenzatrin, which stop pain-producing spasms. Acute pain is also relieved with heat, ice packs and massage.

Along with changing their approach to drugs, back specialists are altering their views on physical activity. Today, exercise is the centerpiece of most back-rehabilitation programs. Walking, swimming and water aerobics are recommended, as are stretching, toning and strengthening. In addition to exercising daily, every patient should wear comfortable, sturdy shoes (not high heels), sleep on a firm mattress and sit in a chair that supports the back. It's also wise to achieve and maintain correct weight.