People usually don’t worry about aches and pains that come on after a fall or moving a piano.
It’s pretty typical to be sore, so… no worries, right? But, when pain sticks around longer than you’d expect, it’s also pretty natural to start worrying – ‘could this be something worse?’. That thought comes on even quicker if you’ve ever known someone who did have pain due to cancer or another serious problem. And while we try to look cool and very calm, your healthcare providers – doctors, nurses, physical therapists – are the quickest to come in for a check-up if their pain lasts too long! They worry about the same things you do.
The important thing for you to know is that, while 80-90% of EVERYBODY will have an episode of persistent back or neck pain at some point of their life, almost all of those episodes will result from muscle strain, disc degeneration, or other manageable causes of back injury. Almost all of these episodes will start to improve after 3 -4 weeks of rest, and some appropriate anti-inflammatory's. If your pain persists for more than 6 – 8 weeks, bothers worse at night than when you are up and active, is causing numbness, weakness, or pain in your arm or leg, however, it’s probably time for a check-up.
To be honest, my own Grandfather was an exception to this rule. At age 65, a 3 pack-per-day smoker, his mid-thoracic back pain had none of the symptoms of a back strain and he had all the risk factors for trouble. So, if you:
- have a history of cancer,
- are at high risk for cancer because of heredity or heavy smoking,
- have been losing weight, or
- are running fevers
along with your symptoms of back or neck pain, then you shouldn’t put off that visit to your doctor. A careful examination and appropriate imaging will either identify the problem or help put your mind at ease.
For the rest of us, it’s worth knowing that a muscular back or neck injury can take several weeks to completely calm down. That’s NORMAL. The best treatment remains – rest, ice and heat, anti-inflammatory medications, time, and exercise, once you start getting back to normal. A visit to your primary doctor, physical therapist, or chiropractor can help get you back on track in most cases. And if it doesn’t, well…that’s where I come in.
I'm Dr. Rob McLain. I've been taking care of back and neck pain patients for more than 30 years. I'm a spine surgeon. But one of my most important jobs is...