Back Pain for Women

The Today Show—NEW YORK CITY—April 13, 2007

Back pain: it can strike without notice as you fling that heavy bag over your shoulder or lift your crying toddler. Unfortunately, it’s bound to happen.

An estimated 80 percent of adults will suffer from backaches at some point in their lives.

Americans spend at least $50 billion a year on low back pain. A leading cause for missed work, back pain strikes both men and women.

One of the most common culprits: the plain old muscle strain.

Another common ailment: a ruptured disc that pushes into the spinal canal, putting pressure on the nerve, causing a herniated or slipped disc. As women age, they become more susceptible to degenerative disc disease.

Back pain is often not only treatable, but avoidable with the proper care.

Natalie Morales, reporter: Dr. Jennifer Solomon specializes in sports and spine injuries at Hospital for Special Surgery here in New York.

Men and women suffer equally from back pain, but there are a lot of physical characteristics that make women more susceptible to back pain, including pregnancy, right?
Dr. Jennifer Solomon: Up to 50 percent of women who are pregnant have an episode of back pain during their pregnancy. Basically it occurs secondary to the weight gain and how we change our center of gravity during that period of time.
Morales: Other potential causes are sitting for a long time, bad posture, having a sedentary lifestyle and menstruation. I think a lot of women certainly feel lower backache while they’re at that time of the month. Are there ways to avoid that?
Dr. Solomon: The hormonal changes are the cause of the back pain. The way to avoid it is to continue to exercise through your menstruation cycle. Most people want to avoid exercise because of their cramping—they don’t feel well—but the best way is to keep moving through it.
Morales: And that keeps you from also bloating?
Dr. Solomon: Absolutely.
Morales: Also, [one] of the other things you talk about to avoid experiencing back pain [is], along with exercise, maintaining a healthy weight. That’s very important.
Dr. Solomon: Obesity is a big risk factor in low back pain. Again, it applies pressure to the spine and the soft tissue structures around the spine, the muscles. Also, obesity leads to inactivity. We want to stay active. Treatment for low back pain includes exercise: keeping those abdominal muscles strong and strengthening them.
Morales: You also say that smoking can lead to back pain, which is something that I don’t think a lot of people realize. How is it related?
Dr. Solomon: Nicotine is a vasoconstrictor, and what happens is the blood supply to the back is very tenuous. So if you smoke on top of having a risk for back pain, it decreases the blood supply to those muscles and to the structures of the spine, which can lead to deterioration and more episodes of low back pain.
Morales: Slouching, bad posture—those are key things that are going to affect whether or not you have back pain. What are some ways, when we are sitting at our computer desks [to not slouch]?
Dr. Solomon: Most people tend to slouch; they go into this forward posture position, which increases the pressure on the spine. So what you want to do is actually sit slightly back and engage your stomach muscles while you’re sitting. That will take a lot of pressure off your spine. Also, one of the biggest problems is we sit all day—we don’t get up from our chairs—so I tell my patients all the time, get up as much as you can. Stretch as much as you can, get the blood flowing to that area as much as you can, and again the core structures—the stomach muscles, the glute muscles—engage them while you are sitting. You can sit there and try to do mini-sit-ups. Just holding your stomach muscles in will also take the pressure off the spine.
Morales: Let’s talk about some treatments for those who already are suffering from back pain. First, you say staying active. What about the confusion over cold versus hot?
Dr. Solomon: This is a very controversial subject. If you read 100 articles, 50 say hot, 50 say cold. In my opinion, I think cold is nature’s own anti-inflammatory. I always recommend cold first. To me, it makes sense. It decreases inflammation, and it decreases the muscle spasms. So I tell my patients, if you want to use heat, alternate with cold. Heat does tend to relax the muscles as well, but in the acute phase, I think cold is better.
Morales: And just real quickly, over-the-counter medication: can it help if it is severe pain?
Dr. Solomon: It just takes the edge off of it. All the anti-inflammatories can take the edge off.
Morales: But if it gets too severe, definitely see a specialist.
Dr. Solomon: Absolutely.

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