<>“The Pain Perplex,” a chapter in the book Complications, by Atul Gawande. Gawande’s entire book is worth reading, but his chapter on pain physiology is certainly the best summary of the subject I have ever read, and a terrific reminder that good writing for a general audience can be just as illuminating for professionals. Anyone struggling with a pain problem should buy the book for this chapter alone, though you are likely to enjoy the whole thing. Much of the chapter focuses on one of the most interesting stories of low back pain I’ve read, and it is a responsible and rational account — although Gawande, like most doctors, seems to be unaware of the clinical significance, or even existence, of myofascial trigger points. >
<>Is “much” information really “just plain wrong”? I will establish this in the sections ahead with a steady supply of clearly explained references to the medical literature that patients can understand and professionals can respect. This extra layer of information in easy-to-use footnotes is available for any reader who wants to dig deeper and check my facts. For example, here’s a good start: In 2010, the Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery reported that “the quality and content of health information on the internet is highly variable for common sports medicine topics,” such as knee pain and low back pain — a bit of an understatement, really. Expert reviewers examined about 75 top-ranked commercial websites and another 30 academic sites. They gave each a quality score on a scale of 100. The average score? Barely over 50! For more detail, see Starman et al. BACK TO TEXT >
<>Most acute low back pain fades steadily — up to 90% of it, for uncomplicated cases.14 So does a lot of so-called “chronic” low back pain!15 But when you don’t recover, many of the therapeutic options — things like surgery for a herniated disc — cause anxiety that is unnecessary and harmful. The purpose of this tutorial is to review and expand the options. >
<>Stretching. Almost everyone can benefit from stretching muscles in the low back, buttocks, hips, and legs (especially the hamstring muscles). These muscles support the weight of the upper body. The more mobile these muscles are the more the back can move without injury. It is typically advised to start small—stretch for 20 to 30 seconds and stop a stretch if it causes pain. >
<>Over-the-counter pain medications. The most common over-the-counter (OTC) medications are aspirin (e.g. Bayer), ibuprofen (e.g. Advil), naproxen (e.g. Aleve), and acetaminophen (e.g. Tylenol). Aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen are anti-inflammatory medicines, which alleviate low back pain caused by a swollen nerves or muscles. Acetaminophen works by interfering with pain signals sent to the brain. >
<>For instance, there’s good evidence that educational tutorials are actually effective medicine for pain.?Dear BF, Gandy M, Karin E, et al. The Pain Course: A Randomised Controlled Trial Examining an Internet-Delivered Pain Management Program when Provided with Different Levels of Clinician Support. Pain. 2015 May. PubMed #26039902. Researchers tested a series of web-based pain management tutorials on a group of adults with chronic pain. They all experienced reductions in disability, anxiety, and average pain levels at the end of the eight week experiment as well as three months down the line. “While face-to-face pain management programs are important, many adults with chronic pain can benefit from programs delivered via the internet, and many of them do not need a lot of contact with a clinician in order to benefit.” Good information is good medicine! >
<>In all other cases, you can safely read this tutorial first. For instance, even if you have severe pain or numbness and tingling down your leg, you can safely read this first. Or, even if you have an obviously severe muscle tear from trying to lift your car or something, you can safely start here — rest and read. Your back is not as fragile as you probably think, and understanding why is a great starting place for healing in nearly all cases of low back pain. >
<>Regular applications of ice to the painful areas on your back may help reduce pain and inflammation from an injury. Try this several times a day for up to 20 minutes each time. Wrap the ice pack in a thin towel to protect your skin. After a few days, switch to heat. Apply a heating pad or warm pack to help relax your muscles and increase blood flowing to the affected area. You also can try warm baths to help with relaxation. To avoid burns and tissue damage, never sleep on a heating pad. >
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