Americans spend at least $50 billion each year on lower back pain, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), and it's now the No. 1 cause of job disability around the world.
In a new study published in the Annals of Rheumatic Diseases, researchers gathered data from 117 studies from 47 different countries and other supplemental surveys. Lower back pain is the top cause for years lost due to disability (calculated by adding years lost as a result of early death and the number of years lived with disability). About one in 10 people suffer from lower back pain, and prevalence is highest in Western Europe and lowest in the Caribbean and Latin America. And the world's growing population of elderly means people are living longer with pain.
Besides lost productivity and years of life, chronic back pain's major problem is how to treat it. There are standard pain killers, heat or ice application, and even surgery in severe cases. Some people prefer acupuncture or even more intensive medication like opioids--which raises addiction concerns. Being sedentary is thought to be one of the causes of back pain, so one the most effective treatments turns out to be exercise.
"Exercise may be the most effective way to speed recovery from low back pain and help strengthen back and abdominal muscles. Maintaining and building muscle strength is particularly important for persons with skeletal irregularities," the NINDS writes on its website.
The best type of exercises for back pain typically incorporate some muscle work and stretching--something like yoga is thought to do wonders. Walking and swimming also combine muscle building and stretching, and any discomfort during exercise should fade as muscles start to bulk up in the right places.
There's no magic bullet to prevent the onset of lower back pain, especially if it's brought on by age, but there are ways to keep the changes at bay: for instance, getting regular physical activity and making sure kids don't wear backpacks overloaded with heavy school books--kids regularly go to the emergency room for backpack-related injuries.
Given how common and debilitating back pain can be, the study's authors argue it's not getting the attention it should. "Governments, health service and research providers and donors need to pay far greater attention to the burden that low back pain causes than what they had done previously," the authors write.