Pain relief: Solutions to aid that aching back

If you’re like eight out of 10 Americans, you will suffer from disabling back pain during your lifetime, according to the National Institutes of Health.

But since most back pain is caused by stressed and damaged muscles (and does not emanate from the spine), there are steps you can take to help prevent it, says noted pain specialist Norman Marcus, M.D.

Dr. Marcus, a past president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine, is clinical associate professor in anesthesiology and psychiatry and director of Muscle Pain Research at the New York University School of Medicine, and the founder of the Norman Marcus Pain Institute (, which is dedicated to eliminating pain, not just attempting to manage it.

He points out that muscle pain can be so severe that that it can leave you totally impaired.

Dr. Marcus’s offers these tips designed to prevent chronic back pain:

Don’t sag in bed: A sagging mattress that has lost its resilience inhibits the body’s normal inclination to gently move around during sleep, and your muscles require movement to stay healthy. In effect, a little tossing and turning at night is good for you.

“If you’re sleeping on a mattress that’s as old as your teenager, it’s time for a replacement,” says Marcus.

Don’t watch television or read when you’re lying down in bed: When you lift your head to view the screen – or raise your arms to hold a book – you generate an isometric contraction that strains your muscles and can cause pain in your neck, head or shoulders. To watch TV or read in bed, sit up with your back supported by the headboard and your knees bent.

Cross your legs: “Our muscles are meant to move,” says Marcus. In a theater or in any situation when you’ve been sitting for a long time, and it may be awkward to stand or move around, just cross a leg. And a bit later, cross the other leg. Simply crossing your legs moves many back and hip muscles, which can be major contributors to low back pain.

Watch your wallet: Men who habitually sit with their wallet in their back pocket risk put undue pressure on nerves and back muscles and risk severe low back and leg pain.

Listen to Clint Eastwood: “Dirty Harry” was right when he observed that “A man’s got to know his limitations.” (A woman, too, Harry.)  If something appears to be too heavy for you to lift, it probably is. Rather than risk straining or seriously damaging your muscles, says Marcus, “Ask for help, wait for help, hire help – or walk away.”

When you do have to lift a heavy object, bend with your knees and hips – not your back: Bring the object close to your body and use your leg muscles (your most powerful muscles), not your back, to do the heavy lifting.

Be a pushy person: Whenever possible, push (don’t pull) heavy objects, using those leg muscles for power.

Lend your hand a hand: Two heads may be better than one, but two hands definitely are. Distribute the weight evenly by putting that very heavy load of laundry into two bags.

Driving pain away: While it won’t ease the pain at the pump, you can take steps to make back pain less likely. During long drives, your muscles don’t move and can tighten up. Stop the car at regular intervals so you can shift positions. Or, even better, limber up by walking around the car.

Is the pain in your back “all in your head?”: There is a direct link between stress and tension and back, shoulder and neck pain, says Marcus. “Tension produces predictable patterns of muscle contractions, which, if sustained long enough, can produce pain. If anger or anxiety are weighing heavily on you, stress reduction activities and relaxation techniques may be your best medicine.”

When chronic back pain does occur, it should be treated seriously – and appropriately, says Marcus. “With the failure rate for the nearly one million spine surgeries performed in the U.S. each year as high as 50 percent, it is clear that there has to be better way – and there is.”

Dr. Marcus has developed techniques that have significantly reduced or completely eliminated chronic back pain in thousands of patients. He has shown that muscles are the primary cause of chronic back pain and that the pain can almost always be cured without resorting to mind-altering drugs or to spine surgery that all too often is doomed to fail.

To read the National Pain Foundation interview with Dr. Marcus, visit:

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