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Doctor's Orders: For Back Pain, Exercise

Doctors say exercising can be the solution to back pain for some patients. (Stuart Ramson / AP Images for Kimberly-Clark)
Doctors say exercising can be the solution to back pain for some patients. (Stuart Ramson / AP Images for Kimberly-Clark)
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The consensus is overwhelming: we've got a back pain problem in the US. Millions of adults suffer from chronic pain that can seem incurable.

We dove into that world today on our air: from treatment to surgery and more. We were joined by Cathryn Jakobson Ramin, author of a new book on the topic, and Dr. Carol Hartigan, medical director of the Spine Center and the Spine Rehabilitation Program at New England Baptist Hospital. Many of our listeners chimed in, too — both on air and online — with stories and struggles of back pain.

Through a combination of personal experience and medical research, our guests arrived at simple conclusion: avoid surgery, and exercise more.

Jakobson Ramin implored patients to trust surgeons who tell them surgery's not the right move, even if it seems like the silver bullet. In other words, don't go looking for the answer you want to hear.

"You will find one who will say to you, I can help you, I can have you back running marathons in six weeks," she said. "And that is where people get into terrible trouble."

Dr. Hartigan especially warned against surgery for patients who have back pain, but not leg pain.

"That's definitely not expected to respond well to surgery," she said.

So what should you do?

"Keep as active as possible as tolerated. Try to keep as strong as possible," Dr. Hartigan said. "Receive messages and surround yourself with clinicians who support you and give you permission to move and be active."

But keep in mind, Dr. Hartigan said, that you may be out of shape and hyper-sensitive, so it's best to take it slow at first.

"It's counter-intuitive to say, let's move the body part that hurts, but once we can confirm that it's benign," Dr. Hartigan said, "then we can all agree there's nothing unsafe, then we can do the counter-intuitive thing and get that body part moving."

What about the cracking and crunching of the chiropractor's office? Jakobson Ramin said patients should seek out chiropractors who've moved away from traditional practice and moved into intensive rehabilitative exercise.

"I don't recommend, endorse or prescribe chiropracty," Dr. Hartigan said, "however, a chiropractor who's recommending intensive exercise I think is a different story."

Each patient's condition and experience is unique, of course. But consider giving our guests a listen and taking a new tack on back pain.

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