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Keep acute back pain from becoming chronic

Chances are you’re one of the eight in 10 people who experience back pain during their lives. Daily life, job conditions, recreational activities, and simple aging have left most of us acquainted with some sort of back pain, ranging from acute and temporary to chronic and disabling. Most back pain resolves on its own and doesn’t need serious medical treatment. However, even a single, acute episode of back pain can leave small but consequential impairments leading to further incidents or chronic pain. For this reason, it’s important to be proactive in keeping your back pain from becoming serious.

Here are a few simple things you can do to prevent acute back pain from progressing:

Know that you need to address the problem. While very few cases of back pain require serious treatment like surgery, it’s important to take steps to prevent the problem from worsening.

Pay attention to your body position and posture. Like your mother said: Sit up straight! In sitting up straight, we engage the muscles in our core, which protects the back and decreases the likelihood of acute pain becoming chronic.

Stay fit. When it comes to back pain, general fitness counts. While we need strong core muscles to protect our backs, cardiovascular fitness is also associated with protection against back pain.

Maintain healthy body mass index/weight. Research shows that people who are overweight or obese are more likely to experience back pain.

Use specific exercises for your needs. If you’re sitting or standing in your job all day, there are specific exercises that can help your back. The Mayo Clinic provides guides for healthy back exercises in 15 minutes a day, available at, search “back pain exercises.”

Resume normal activities as soon as possible. Bed rest for longer than a day can actually slow your recovery, so stay active and try to perform as much of your normal routine as you can.

However, it’s also important to know the red flags that might indicate your back pain has a potentially serious underlying cause. Consult your doctor if you are experiencing any of these symptoms, or if your pain isn’t resolved in three to five weeks.

  • Pain that goes below the knee
  • Severe, unrelenting pain that wakes you up at night or gives you cold sweats
  • Sudden, unexplained weight loss

    To learn about participating in research about back pain or other health areas at the University of Kentucky, visit

Arthur Nitz, PT, Ph.D., a professor of physical therapy in the UK College of Health Science, from the October 2015 issue.

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