Your guide to fixing (and preventing!) back pain—February 28, 2012

The back is literally your body's support system, made up of more than 30 bones and hundreds of nerves, muscles, ligaments, and tendons. But all those moving parts mean it's vulnerable to problems, too.

Luckily, back issues are easier to resolve than you may think. Use this guide to pinpoint what's causing yours, so you get the right treatment, fast -- and prevent future flare-ups.

Culprit #1: Muscle strains

The lowdown. Muscle strains are actually small tears in, or the stretching out of, muscle fibers. They're also the top reason for back pain.

What it feels like. A stiffness or soreness that worsens with activity (including small movements, like bending over to pick something up).

The cause. Any repetitive or jolting movement -- or even just sitting.

The Rx. Every waking hour for the first 24 hours, then every few hours for the next 24: Ice the strain for 15 minutes to reduce swelling. (Heat will only increase inflammation.)

Every two hours (at least): "Stretch and move gently," says Jennifer Solomon, M.D., a physiatrist at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. "Lying down may cause the muscles to tighten up even more," i.e., go into a spasm.

Every four to six hours: Try an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory like ibuprofen -- take according to package directions.

After 48 hours: If pain doesn't improve, call your primary care physician to rule out a more serious condition.


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