By Batya Swift Yasgur, MA, WebMD
Nearly half of all U.S. adults have back pain, and 40% say the pain limits their social activities, according to a new poll.
The survey of 2,000 U.S. adults, done by OnePoll on behalf of Chirp, a company that makes devices for back pain relief, found that almost half of respondents (49%) are affected by pain at work, and 2 in 5 say that pain hampers their social lives.
Francesca Kubian-Geidel, an 80-year-old retired music teacher in Paterson, NJ, is an example. She has lower back pain due to spinal stenosis, which narrows the spaces within your spine and puts pressure on nerves there. It affects her sleep and quality of life, and sometimes makes her less able to socialize with friends – although, she says, “I try not to let it stop me.”
An outgoing person with many hobbies and interests, and “many wonderful friends,” Kubian-Geidel doesn’t want to let pain to stop her from living life to the fullest, so she uses an array of “tools in her toolkit” to deal with her pain.
Unfortunately, many people are limited by pain, according to Tate Stock, CEO of Chirp, that makes therapy wheels to treat back pain. Chirp sponsored the poll.
“In addition to limited physical activity, pain can cause psychological effects, such as feelings of isolation and fatigue, being easily distracted, or having a poor self-image,” Stock says. “So it’s important to utilize as many approaches as possible to both prevent and manage pain.
“I really appreciate the information obtained in this study,” says Brian A. Cole, MD, an orthopedic surgeon and founder of Englewood Spine Associates in Englewood, NJ.
“The study validates some of the things that we’ve been telling patients for years,” he says. “All of us experience some form of discomfort from time to time. The question is whether or not you can live with it and can you manage it effectively.”
“Information is power,” he says. “And once you know that you’re dealing with a common problem and there are solutions, it takes away some of the fear.”
Medication Helps But Isn’t Foolproof
The survey found that as many as one-third take over-the-counter pain medication every day, with 20% of them saying they take pain medications once a day and more than 10% saying they take them “a few times a day.”
In fact, over-the-counter medication was the most common thing those surveyed used to prevent pain, although it was not the most popular tool people reached for: 42% of respondents reported reacting to pain by resting, while only 34% said they use store-bought medication. Thirty-seven percent said they use prescription pain medications.
Cole says he would rather see patients take OTC pain medications rather than “any narcotic or drug that affects brain function.” Although “all medications have some form of side effects, as long as we can quantify what is safe, these medications can be quite effective in achieving pain relief, improving the quality of life, and improving mental health.”
Kubian-Geidel uses prescription and OTC pain medication. Her doctor prescribed gabapentin – normally used to treat seizures – and she also uses acetaminophen and ibuprofen when necessary – for example, if pain becomes very severe and interferes with her sleep.
“The drugs aren’t foolproof and won’t make all pain just go away,” she says. “So I have to use other approaches as well.”
Nondrug Approaches to Healing
“I am happy to see that the study shows that Americans are using other methodologies besides taking oral medication,” Cole says.
Other things, such as massage, therapy tools, or stretching, will help, Cole says.
Some of the most popular things survey respondents try to prevent pain were physical therapy (32%), stretching regularly (34%), and getting massage and/or acupuncture (36%). And over a third reported reacting to pain by using hot and/or cold therapies
Kubian-Geidel rests when she feels pain coming on, especially while she’s waiting for the medications to begin working.
“I don’t run around,” she says. “I wait to let the medications get into my system. I lie down or sit down, read something, and try not to concentrate on the pain.”
She also went to physical therapy for 10 weeks, and now she continues to do the exercises she learned in PT and to do gentle stretching. She also tries to go for walks and keep as active as she can.
“At the moment, I can walk without a walker, and walking is helpful; but in the future, I can get a walker with a built-in chair if necessary. That way, I can lean on the walker and, if I feel pain, I can take a break from walking and sit down.”
About a third of people surveyed said exercising daily helps with pain, while 35% said a sedentary lifestyle contributes to pain. Another popular technique, reported by almost 40% of those surveyed, both for prevention and for management of back pain, was use of myofascial release tools, such as a back wheel or foam roller.
Kubian-Geidel says that she’s never tried a myofascial release tool but is open to doing so. “I’m more than willing to try something new, and maybe it will help.”
Ultimately, “the response to treatment is variable among patients, and there is no way to predict what works the best for any patient, other than trial and error,” says Cole. So “it’s a matter of choosing the method that works best for you” from all the available approaches.
And here’s an activity that was endorsed by most respondents: Almost three-quarters (73%) said that spending time with loved ones makes them feel healthy. It’s not so much an “approach” or “technique” designed for pain relief but rather part of a lifestyle.
Kubian-Geidel agrees. “Being with family and friends is wonderfully healing on all levels,” she says.