Quiz: What's the Best Way to Cope With Back Pain?

It all starts when you slip on a sidewalk, try to lift a child, or bend down to pick up a newspaper. But where does it end? According to the Mayo Clinic, four out of five adults suffer from back pain at some point in their lives. The good news is that the pain almost always fades quickly, especially for people who know how to take care of their backs. How much do you know about coping with back pain? Take this short quiz to find out.

1. Which of these common remedies is LEAST likely to ease back pain?

a. Extended bed rest

b. Ice pack

c. Regular doses of aspirin

d. Heating pad

2. How long should most people with back pain wait before returning to their normal activities?

a. As little as possible

b. One week

c. Two weeks

d. One month

3. How long should most people with back pain uncomplicated by fever, numbness, or another warning sign wait before seeing a doctor?

a. Three days

b. One week

c. Three weeks

d. Six weeks

4. Exercises can help prevent backaches, but they probably won't ease a sudden bout of pain.

True

False

5. Self-care is usually ineffective for sciatica -- pain that shoots from the back to a leg -- making surgery the only real option for relief.

True

False

6. If you're slightly overweight, you can probably blame your back pain on those extra pounds.

True

False

Your Results

1. Which of these common remedies is LEAST likely to ease back pain?

The correct answer is: a. Extended bed rest.

If lying down feels good, a couple days of bed rest isn't a bad idea. But if you plop yourself down for longer than that, the muscles in your back can weaken and your pain can worsen. Instead of planting yourself in bed, try easing the pain with aspirin or other over-the-counter pain relievers. Ice packs and heating pads can also help. The Mayo Clinic recommends using an ice pack wrapped in a cloth several times a day for 20 minutes at a time. As the back starts to heal, a heating pad can loosen muscles and speed relief.

2. How long should most people with back pain wait before returning to their normal activities?

The correct answer is: a. As little as possible.

According to a report in the New England Journal of Medicine, most people should try to resume their normal activities as soon as possible, within limits. If your job requires a lot of heavy lifting, twisting, or bending, you may need to take some time off to give your back a chance to recover.

3. How long should most people with back pain uncomplicated by fever, numbness, or another warning sign wait before seeing a doctor?

The correct answer is: a. Three days.

Most aching backs will heal on their own within six weeks, but some cases require quicker action. The Mayo Clinic suggests calling a doctor if the pain doesn't show any signs of improving after 72 hours of self care. You should also see your doctor if you've had trouble with your back before, if you have a history of cancer, if you've had unexplained weight loss of more than 10 pounds in the last six months, or if you're over 50. Also, call your doctor immediately if you have any of these symptoms, as they could signal an emergency: a fever of 100.4 degrees or more that lasts for more than 48 hours; constant or intense pain (especially at night); pain that spreads down one or both legs; loss of bladder or bowel control; stomach pain; or weakness, numbness, or tingling in one or both legs.

4. Exercises can help prevent backaches, but they probably won't ease a sudden bout of pain.

The correct answer is: True.

Doing exercises that strengthen back muscles is a proven remedy for chronic back pain, and can also help prevent future attacks. But according to a report in the New England Journal of Medicine, exercises won't help a person get through a sudden attack of pain. Once your back feels better, your doctor or physical therapist can suggest exercises to help keep the pain from returning.

5. Self-care is usually ineffective for sciatica -- pain that shoots from the back to a leg -- making surgery the only real option for relief.

The correct answer is: False.

The sciatic nerve is the largest nerve in the body; it starts from the lower back, goes through the pelvis, and travels down into the leg. Sciatica, or pain along the sciatic nerve, usually occurs when this nerve is pinched. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, 80 to 90 percent of people with sciatica manage to recover on their own without surgery. The basic strategy for coping with sciatica is the same as with simple back pain: Stay as active as possible, don't do any heavy lifting for a while, and try certain stretches, over-the-counter pain relievers, heating pads, or cold packs to ease your pain. You and your doctor may have to consider surgery if your sciatica lasts for six weeks or more, or if you have a growing sense of numbness, tingling, and weakness in your legs.

6. If you're slightly overweight, you can probably blame your back pain on those extra pounds.

The correct answer is: False.

According to back-pain expert Richard Deyo, M.D., a professor of medicine at the University of Washington, a few extra pounds probably won't put extra strain on the back. People who are moderately overweight (or anyone, for that matter) often find that their backs ache much less often after they take up regular exercise. But it's the exercise itself (not the resulting weight loss) that prevents the pain. For people who are severely obese, weight loss just might take pressure off the spine and relieve back pain, but weight loss alone is no guaranteed solution for chronic back pain in any patient.

References

Deyo, RA and Weinstein, JN . Primary care: Low back pain. New England Journal of Medicine 344 (5) 363-370.

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Sciatica.

Mayo Clinic. Back pain.

Interview with Richard Deyo, MD

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