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Back pain is a common medical problem, affecting as many as 8 out of 10 people in their lifetime, according to research found at the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Research at the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has also shown that almost 40 million U.S. workers are experiencing low back pain.
With so many people dealing with back pain, it is not surprising that many myths or misconceptions have developed about causes, impacts and treatments. Following are some of the common “mythconceptions” that are pervasive.
Common Myths Associated with Back Pain
Myth 1. Exercise will make back pain worse
One of the top misconceptions is that exercise should be avoided because it will make back pain worse. Exercise does not make back pain worse. It helps ease back pain for several reasons. Exercise stretches muscles, ligaments and tendons that have tightened due to stress or a medical condition. It strengthens muscles in the back and abdomen which helps stabilize the spine and provides additional support for the back. Daily moderate exercise is recommended.
Myth 2. Bed rest is good for easing back pain
This could also be named as one of the biggest myths about the pain experienced in the back, especially lower back pain or sciatica. Laying down leads to changes in the back’s structures and alignment that can increase back pain. For example, research has shown the intervertebral disc increases in size because it absorbs fluids and swells. In addition, laying down changes the curvature of the spine by flattening it. It is one reason people who normally have no back pain issues will complain of back pain after staying in bed too long. Minimizing physical activity to accommodate back pain is not a good strategy, and over the long term will lead to even more issues, like weak muscles.
Myth 3. Severe back pain means there is a serious medical problem
Back pain can range from mild to moderate to severe. It is natural to automatically assume severe back pain or a painful flare-up means something very serious is happening. In some cases, it might be. For example, back pain may be due to degenerative disc disease that needs intervention. Often the pain is due to something less serious, like a pulled back muscle, and occurs when doing a specific activity, like lifting or twisting. If the pain continues to lessen and goes away over 3-5 days after home treatment, like applying ice, it is unlikely there is a serious medical problem.
Myth 4. Bulging spinal discs are always a major medical issue
Bulging discs commonly develop as people age. A bulging disc may or may not cause back pain. It may cause pain when it places pressure on nearby nerves, but the bulging disc can often be treated with anti-inflammatory medications, application of heating pads and light exercise. Bulging discs become a serious problem when there is severe pain indicating the disc is near herniation or the pressure on nerves creates issues like numbness or weakness in a leg or loss of bladder control.
Myth 5. Spine surgeons always recommend surgery to relieve back pain
Spine surgeons do not always recommend surgery to treat chronic spine pain. In fact, spine surgeons will always first develop non-surgical treatment plans. Most back pain problems are resolved without surgery. Even if you are living with chronic back pain, the first treatment options are non-surgical, but it does take adherence to the treatment plan your doctor recommends.
Myth 6. Stress is not a cause of back pain
Stress may be an emotional experience, but it causes physical responses. Stress leads to changes in breathing that cause tension in back muscles, can cause poor posture due to fatigue and promotes inactivity. It can also lead to tight muscles, especially in the neck.
7. Back pain is the result of injury
You can experience back pain without injury. There are many reasons a person develops back pain. They include a herniated disc, sciatica, spinal stenosis and arthritis, to name a few. Damaged discs in the lower back, like herniated lumbar discs, are one of the most common causes of lower back pain. A herniated disc can lead to the gel-like material in the disc irritating and inflaming spinal nerves. There are even causes that are not connected to the back structures, like kidney stones and pregnancy.
Myths Cause Confusion
Believing myths about back pain can lead to people deciding the best course of action is getting used to pain. In the worst-case scenarios, people do not see a doctor when the medical problem causing back pain needs professional attention. It is wise to only listen to your doctor or physical therapist who knows what is a myth and what is the truth.
- Fernandez M, Hartvigsen J, Ferreira ML, et al. Advice to Stay Active or Structured Exercise in the Management of Sciatica. Spine. 2015;40(18):1457-1466. PMID: 26165218 doi:10.1097/brs.0000000000001036
- Belavý DL, Armbrecht G, Richardson CA, Felsenberg D, Hides JA. Muscle Atrophy and Changes in Spinal Morphology. Spine. 2011;36(2):137-145. doi:10.1097/brs.0b013e3181cc93e8
- Alturkistani LH, Hendi OM, Bajaber AS, et al. Prevalence of Lower Back Pain and its Relation to Stress Among Medical Students in Taif University, Saudi Arabia. Int J Prev Med. 2020;11:35. Published 2020 Mar 16. doi:10.4103/ijpvm.IJPVM_264_19