Keeping acute back pain from becoming chronic

Contributing columnistJuly 13, 2014 

Chances are, you're one of the eight in 10 people who experience back pain during their lives. Daily life, job conditions, recreational activities, and simple aging have left most of us acquainted with some sort of back pain, ranging from acute and temporary to chronic and disabling. The good news is that most back pain resolves on its own and doesn't need serious medical treatment.

However, even a single, acute episode of back pain can leave small but consequential impairments that can lead to further incidents or chronic pain. For this reason, it's important to be proactive in keeping your back pain from becoming serious.

Here are a few simple things you can do to prevent acute back pain from progressing:

1. Know that you need to address the problem. While very few cases of back pain require serious treatment like surgery, it's important to take steps to prevent the problem from worsening.

2. Pay attention to your body position and posture. Like your mother said: Sit up straight! In sitting up straight, we engage the muscles in our core, which protects the back and decreases the likelihood of progression from acute to chronic pain.

3. Stay fit. When it comes to back pain, general fitness counts. In addition to the need for strong core muscles to protect our backs, cardiovascular fitness is also associated with protection against back pain.

4. Maintain healthy body mass index/weight. Research shows that people who are overweight or obese are more likely to experience back pain.

5. Use specific exercises for your needs. If you're sitting or standing in your job all day, there are specific exercises that can help your back. The Mayo Clinic provides guides for healthy back exercises in 15 minutes a day, available at

6. Resume normal activities as soon as possible. Bed rest for longer than a day can actually slow your recovery, so stay active and try to perform as much of your normal routine as you can.

However, it's also important to know the "red flags" that might indicate you're dealing with something more serious than garden variety back pain. Consult your doctor if you are experiencing any of these symptoms, or if your pain isn't resolved in three to five weeks.

 Pain that goes below the knee

 Severe, unrelenting pain that wakes you up at night or gives you cold sweats

 Sudden, unexplained weight loss

If you have back pain and are interested in participating in back pain research at the University of Kentucky, contact the Human Musculoskeletal Biomechanics Lab, (859) 323-3876 or

Dr. Arthur Nitz is a professor of physical therapy in the UK College of Health Science.

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