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Dr. Russell Amundson, National Senior Medical Director, UnitedHealthcare
As many people in Colorado and across the country transitioned to working from home amid COVID-19, office furniture may have been replaced by makeshift desks and household chairs. However, the dining room table or a spot on the couch may not have the same ergonomic design as a traditional office setup, which may have contributed to a spike in low back pain since COVID-19 emerged.
About 80% of people experience low back issues at least once, with pain ranging from a minor nuisance to a major disability. When severe pain lingers, people may think about seeking a prescription to help – however, clinical guidelines recommend avoiding these medications as the initial treatment for low back pain. Unfortunately, low back pain ranks as a driver of opioid prescriptions in the United States, and opioid usage comes with possible unnecessary risks of addiction and potential complications.
While sometimes low back pain can’t be avoided, it’s important to focus on your CORE: correct posture, overweight (avoid it), relax, and exercise. To build on that concept, here are five preventive steps and evidence-based care methods to help address this common issue:
Focus on Posture. Whether you are now working at the kitchen table or on the couch, focusing on proper posture may help. Make sure you sit up straight with your knees at a 90-degree angle, with your shoulders in a straight line over your hips and your ears directly over your shoulders. If you’re working at a computer, adjust the screen height to eye level and consider elevating the keyboard to help keep your hands, wrists, and forearms in line and parallel to the floor. Also, note how often you are on the phone, which may contribute to poor neck posture. Instead of tilting your chin down, raise the device to eye level and avoid tucking it between your ear and shoulder, or opt for a speakerphone or headset.
Take Breaks. You may notice you feel sore even if you maintain good posture throughout your workday. If you stay in one spot for too long, your muscles and joints may get stiff. Consider taking quick breaks every 30 minutes to get up and stretch or walk around. This may promote better blood flow for your muscles and joints, and it may also give your eyes and mind a break.
Stay Active. While some people with low back pain may be tempted to consider bed rest, staying active in many cases may be the best option. Low impact activities to consider include walking and swimming, while research indicates that strengthening leg muscles may also prove helpful. You might also try yoga and tai chi, as they’ve been shown to ease moderate to severe low back pain. If time is a factor, a brief walk at lunch or going up and down the stairs a few times can help you stay active.
Eat a Healthier Diet. The bones, muscles, discs, and other structures in your back may need proper nutrition to support your body. Eating a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and healthy fats may help reduce inflammation, often contributing to chronic back pain. Eating a healthier diet may also help you maintain a healthy weight, which may also reduce your risk for back pain.
Consider care options. The American College of Physicians (ACP) recommends exercise-based therapies as the first line of treatment. If low back pain persists, ACP encourages the use of nonsurgical options for initial treatment, including physical therapy, chiropractic care, acupuncture, and over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs. These non-invasive treatment options, which in some cases may be covered by your health benefit plan, may help 95% of people with low back pain recover after 12 weeks. Muscle relaxants should be secondary options, and imaging (such as an MRI) and surgery should be a last resort. However, certain “red-flag” symptoms, such as fever or loss of bladder and bowel control, may require immediate testing and intervention.
Even for people with chronic low back pain, only a small percentage may need more invasive procedures or surgery. Taking preventive steps – and selecting evidence-based care approaches – may help reduce the risks and complications associated with low back pain.