The Sunday TimesPlus

4th May 1997



Your Health

Ouch! my aching back

by Dr. Sanjiva Wijesinha

I am indebted to my friend Dr. Buddy Reid, one-time national cricketer and now a surgeon practising in Australia, for the very practical advice contained in this article.

Backache is one of the common conditions that takes people to consult their doctors. It often occurs when one strains the powerful muscles on either side of one’s spine, a situation that is brought on by excessive or unaccustomed physical activity.

As one gets older, one is more liable to this type of back strain - so it is prudent as you get older to take note of actions and activities that you should avoid, so that you can protect your back from this form of attack.

Among the precautions that Dr. Reid advises are those which, common sense will tell us, prevent sudden or excessive strain being placed on the back muscles. "Never do anything with both hands" he says "while you are leaning forward." A good example of the type of action to be avoided is when one tries to take things out of the car-dickey or luggage-boot. The extra weight one attempts to carry exerts its maximum effect on the spine muscles - and the sudden jerk as one pulls a loaded suitcase out of the vehicle could well damage these muscles." "If one has to carry some load in such a situation," cautions Dr. Reid, "it is better to use one hand for support, resting one’s weight on the body of the car, and then use the other to pull the suitcase out."

When working with both hands, it is best to place oneself as close as possible to what one is doing. At a desk, for example, instead of arching one’s back to focus one’s ageing eyes on one’s work, have whatever one is looking at placed at an angle, so that it is comfortable for both the eyes as well as the back.

If you do have to lift anything, bend your knees, keeping your back straight instead of curving it. Kneel if necessary - and where possible, carry things behind your back rather than in front. Even a chair can be carried this way (even if it looks funny!) putting less strain on your back muscles than when it is carried with both hands in front of you.

Pain caused by back strain usually comes on a couple of days after the activity which caused it. The pain is so severe that all you can do is grit your teeth and stay without moving, since any form of movement only serves to aggravate the agony.

To relieve that pain, you can use anti-inflammatory tablets such as aspirin, indomethacin, voltaren etc - or even ordinary paracetemol. Some local heat - in the form of fomentation or ray treatment or some liniment-like rubs - should help. Above all, you need to rest the strained muscles - so a couple of days off physical activity is called for.

The sad truth is that once you get an attack of back strain, you are bound to get more - in fact, you should consider yourself, when you are well and pain-free, as only being in between attacks!

Of course, the period between attacks could last for days, months or even years. It all depends on how well you protect your back.

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