Back is out. Now what?
November 11, 2008 5:16 AM   Subscribe

Advice for sudden back problem?

Last night I leaned back in my chair just like I have a million other times, and suddenly experienced a near-immobilizing twinge right in the center of my back, just below and between my shoulder blades. Immediately my range of motion was cut off, just like I've experienced in the past when I had a serious crick in my neck, or once when I had a lower back injury.

I've never had a problem with this part of my back before; the hours until sleep were no fun, I tried ibuprofen and a wet heating pad. Sleep itself was uncomfortable as I was unable to shift position without great care and effort, yet no position felt truly comfortable.

This morning it's only very slightly better than it was last night. Should I see somebody? Who? And what can I do in the meantime to stay comfortable and keep from making it worse?

When I hurt my lower back last year, I was just very careful and slow for a couple of days and alternated hot and cold packs, and I was fine. I'm just confused because this time I didn't do anything even remotely strenuous.

Bonus question: I have a 3 hour bus trip planned for Friday. Realistically, should I cancel?
posted by hermitosis to Health & Fitness (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
An ex-partner and I spent many months with her severe back problem. From that experience, here are a few suggestions: try sleeping on your side with a pillow between your knees; take the maximum dosage of ibuprofen; cancel that bus trip; remember that you are growing older and your back is, too.
posted by Carol Anne at 6:19 AM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's probably a back strain/sprain; they can happen without strenuous activity (not a doctor, but I did it picking up a bath towel). Go see your primary care doc, or just a PA at a clinic to get a diagnosis. If it's all in your muscles, they'll probably write you a script for painkillers and a muscle relaxant, which should make things more comfortable. They'll also hopefully be able to give you some stretches to get limbered up again.

I'd hold off on making a decision about the bus trip for now.
posted by craven_morhead at 6:23 AM on November 11, 2008

Sounds like what happened to me a year or so ago - I was putting on my jacket one evening when I got a sudden streak of pain in my mid/upper back. Turning my head was difficult; using my right arm was difficult. And it was not at all like the usual lower-back stuff that happens to me sometimes.

But I did the same things for it - alternated heating pads and cold packs, took ibuprofen every four hours (I took four; YMMV; you want to keep the level of anti-inflammatory meds in your blood up and level), tried to gently stretch as frequently as possible. I have no idea what set it off, and it took about a week to finally go away.

Cancel the bus trip, I think. Avoid carrying a shoulder bag. I did find that dangling a heavy-ish bag from my right hand helped stretch the affected area and it felt good. If it hurts (a lot) when you do *this*, then don't do *this*, whatever it is. If you know of a good masseuse, you might try that, although when I have back "episodes" I find that I'm too worried and tense about being hurt (unintentionally) to enjoy or benefit from massage. Good luck!
posted by rtha at 6:27 AM on November 11, 2008

If anyone suggests massage, be careful. If you want to massage an injured muscle, it must be done very carefully and lightly or it will just get worse. Personal experience. I believe you should see your GP or a sports-medicine/orthopedist-type for a diagnosis of what really happened. They may then refer you for physical therapy.

On preview, seconding the drugs 'n' stretches after you see a professional. Get their advice on how bad an idea it would be to sit immobile for 3 hours in a non-ergodynamic bus seat.
posted by JimN2TAW at 6:29 AM on November 11, 2008

I have successfully used the Thermacare "heat wraps" for back pains upper and lower, and they beat any heating pad for me. The arthritis version isn't hot enough for me, and I prefer the smaller ones that show a guy with the "wrap" on his upper shoulders (even though I will use them on any part of my back) - these stick to you, while the "back" ones have this weird wrap around thing that does not work for me, especially for upper/middle back.

As an aside, it just got cold here (outside) in the last couple of days, and I have noticed more aches than I did when it was warmer. I would try to stay indoors and warm, and limit time walking/subway/etc...

I'd cancel the bus trip. But I don't like the bus, so I would probably cancel for almost any reason - it's like a recipe for sore muscles.
posted by KAS at 6:57 AM on November 11, 2008

I had something similar before & consulted a physio - said it was a muscle spasm & went away in a few days without treatment.
posted by canoehead at 7:09 AM on November 11, 2008

I get what sounds like the same thing every once in a while. The first time it scares the hell out of you, doesn't it? It feels like you may never be able to walk erect again.

Once this happened to me on a trip, and I half-walked, half-crawled into a drug store. The pharmacist, didn't say a word, just walked me to the correct aisle and handed me a bottle of this stuff. It's a miracle drug as far as I'm concerned.

Incidentally, my doctor later told me that you don't have to do anything particularly strenuous to induce this…just some activity that you don't usually do. Anything repetitive that is not your normal routine can set it off. In my case, we suspected that a new-found enthusiasm for throwing darts caused it.

Take your trip.
posted by dinger at 11:33 AM on November 11, 2008

Back spasm. I have scoliosis and I get them whenever I haven't been exercising and have committed one too many crimes against my back (heavy groceries, carrying a ladder, etc.)

Short term: Pamprin. It works for menstrual cramps, it will work for your back. Also, heating pad. You're in NYC. Call these people, tell them what's going on, and sign up for an hour.

Medium-term: Get some pro muscle relaxants from your doctor. Ask for a referral to the Phys therapy clinic, where you can have a one-time appointment to put together a set of stretches that can prevent spasms and relieve them.

Long-term: Get hooked up with this woman. Total back genius with a deep understanding of physical elements and how to strengthen your body to prevent and address pain.

See where you stand on Thursday. A bus ride may aggravate the spasm. I'd be careful.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 2:11 PM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you experience recurring back pain, you might try reading The Mindbody Prescription.
posted by nel at 3:37 PM on November 11, 2008

Speaking as someone who sprained his back and then spent several hours in an uncomfortable bus seat almost a month after the injury: if you enjoy having the ability to walk, you will not spend three hours on a bus this week. With triple the recommended dose of Advil (and then a couple of Vicodin on top of that when it wasn't getting better), I was in more pain than I can ever remember enduring. Those seats are designed to ruin backs, especially if you're taller than six feet. If there's absolutely no way out, start planning a way you can get up and stretch in place every 30 minutes or so.

Regardless of the bus trip, if you're still hurting in a day or two, get thee to a doctor; he'll probably send you to a physical therapist if it's anything more than a strain, and PT is helpful for both alleviating pain and strengthening to prevent recurring injuries.
posted by Mayor West at 4:59 AM on November 12, 2008

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