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News : Health Dec 24, 2011 - 9:44 AM

'Tis the season back pain gets worse

By Hospital for Special Surgery

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Drs. Peter Moley and Alice Chen, both physiatrists in Greenwich, see a large increase in patients suffering from back pain between now and the end of the year. “For some, it starts when people try to lift a heavy package and hurt their backs,” says Dr. Chen, who lives in Weston and will be joining the Affiliated Physicians Office of Hospital for Special Surgery in Greenwich in early January.

Once someone has back pain -- and the most common area is the lower back -- there’s an 80 percent chance they will have back pain again, according to Dr. Moley, who lives in Darien and sees patients at the Affiliated Physicians Office in Greenwich and at Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan.

Physiatrists are specialists in the nonsurgical treatment of muscle and joint conditions, as well as spinal and sports-related injuries. Drs. Chen and Moley say back pain is the most common reason for patient visits. Indeed, it’s the leading cause of disability in Americans under age 45. More than 26 million Americans between the ages of 20-64 experience frequent back pain.

It often gets worse this time of year, and the doctors point to a number of reasons.

Stress is a major culprit. It tends to make back pain worse, according to Dr. Chen. “People think it’s a happy time of year, but it’s also very stressful,” she says.

“People are running around shopping, they’re trying to meet deadlines. People are stuck in traffic and they’re in their car longer, which may lead to back and neck pain. They’re walking in the mall for hours with heavy packages. It can be an emotional and sad time for people who have lost family members. All of these factors can lead to back pain or make a minor problem worse.”

Even everyday chores at home can cause problems because there’s so much more to do this time of year. “I’ve seen people develop back pain after standing for many hours when cooking for the holidays. I’ve treated patients with neck and hand injuries from frantically knitting or crocheting for hours on end to finish a project for the holidays,” Dr. Chen says.

Research shows that emotional stress or mental pain can turn into physical pain. Depression and stress deplete certain brain chemicals that play a role in controlling pain, according to Dr. Chen. When these chemicals are diminished, pain gets worse.

With so much to do, people also get run down this time of year. “You don’t sleep well, you many not have time to eat right, you don’t have time to exercise. It’s no wonder we see more patients this time of year,” Dr. Moley says.

Drs. Chen and Moley have the following tips to maintain spine health and enjoy the holidays pain-free:

Put things in perspective.

Make sure you’re getting enough rest.

If a package is heavy, ask for help. If you do lift, remember to bend from the KNEES.

Slow down and take breaks. Don’t overdo it.

Stay focused on the task at hand and be mindful to avoid an accident.

Don't forget to do your exercises and stretching during the holiday season.

Don’t say “I don’t have time to attend to my pain.” Don’t ignore initial symptoms.

If you do develop back pain, the doctors advise resting for two days and taking an anti-inflammatory medication such as ibuprofen. If the pain is not better in two days, or if you have sharp, excruciating pain that radiates down your leg, see a doctor.

Dr. Moley says when you see a physician, the doctor should spend ample time with you, taking a good medical history, performing a physical exam and ordering appropriate diagnostic tests, such as x-rays. “The doctor must spend time with the patient to get to the root of the problem and prescribe the best individualized treatment plan,” he says. “Our goal is to restore function and mobility, and once the patient is pain-free, we encourage him or her to develop good habits to maintain spine health for life.”

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