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Back pain: when to see a doctor

The difference between acute and chronic back pain, their causes and treatments.


Everyone has suffered (or will suffer) with back pain at least once in his or her lifetime. This is perhaps one of the most common medical problems, that can range from an acute episode of sudden sharp pain lasting for a few days, to a constant chronic ache that never subsides.


Acute back pain

Acute back pain generally results from accidental injuries (such as falls and car accidents), from executing an abrupt movement or from lifting an heavy object, which can place excessive load on the back muscles. It often resolves on its own in a few days or weeks, although some relief can be obtained by taking pain medications and resting for a few days. In any case, when acute back pain results from injuries or falls, it is always a good idea to see a doctor. 


Chronic back pain

Chronic back pain is a painful sensation that seems never to subside. Doctors define chronic back pain as a pain that lasts for at least three months at a time and is recurrent, where the term recurrent means that pain occurs in long-lasting episodes and tends to return after brief or prolonged periods of resolution. Regardless of the cause, both recurrence and severity of chronic back pain greatly vary among people and are often unpredictable.


It is important to remember that chronic back pain (as well as acute back pain) is not a medical condition in itself. It is always the symptom of an underlying condition that involves the spine, although in most cases the exact cause is not known or it is difficult to ascertain. Some risk factors have been identified however. These include increasing age, a low physical activity level (resulting in weakness of the back muscles), obesity, and certain types of jobs, such as inactive jobs that require sitting all day (desk jobs) or active jobs that require substantial strain or sprain of the back.


Back pain and quality of life

It is possible to learn to live with chronic back pain, but this is not advisable. Chronic back pain always reduces the quality of life and often makes difficult to carry out even the most simple daily activities, so patients affected with this problem should always see a doctor in order to determine the cause (when possible) and formulate a proper treatment plan.


Back pain and treatments*

Nonsurgical treatment is always the first choice, except for a very small percentage of cases that require prompt surgery, such as patients affected by back pain caused by tumors or infections involving the spine. Proper exercise (such as stretching, flexion and extension exercises), hot or cold packs, and pain medications are the most commonly recommended treatments for chronic back pain. Learning good posture and adopting healthy lifestyle habits (exercise, low-fat diet, regular sleep, no smoking) are advisable measures as well. Alternative therapies, such as acupuncture, acupressure and certain types of messages can be a reliable aid in the treatment of chronic back pain. Although these methods don't cure the disease, some patients find them helpful for relieving or controlling pain.


Because the treatment of chronic back pain nearly always requires the use of medications for long periods of time, even for life, its cost should be covered by an appropriate international health insurance plan.


If you wish to cover yourself or your family from chronic or acute pain we can help you finding the right international medical insurance. Please ask for a  free quote, or contact one of our highly trained advisors.

*Always seek professional medical advise from a qualified doctor before undergoing any treatment.