Back to school shouldn’t mean back in pain

Neurosurgeon discusses how teachers can avoid, respond to back issues

Karl D. Schultz, Jr. MD

Teachers face plenty of stress and difficulty at this time of year – and not always in the manner you’d think.

Making sure your lesson plans are in order and that students are getting off to a good start and staying on task over the first few months is demanding enough. But after weeks away from the job, plenty of teachers also find themselves facing physical pain – specifically back pain.

Just like anyone who performs a significant amount of daily manual labor, teachers spend a lot of their days standing and bending over – activities which make them susceptible to back pain.

The good news is that most acute back pain will resolve itself. But, as Longstreet Clinic neurosurgeon Dr. Karl Schultz, Jr. notes, how you initially respond and treat your back pain can make a significant difference in your outcome from an acute episode of back pain as well as potentially save you an unnecessary trip to the urgent care center – saving you money!

“Although the school year is relatively new, I’ve already evaluated a teacher suffering from an acute back pain episode,” said Dr. Schultz, who helps patients facing a wide variety of back and neck concerns at Longstreet Clinic’s leading-edge Neuroscience and Orthopedic Center in Gainesville and Braselton. “Maintaining good back health is a constant struggle for a lot of people – and that certainly includes a lot of teachers – because we all want to do things that might not fit with our body’s ability and overall health condition(s).”

To that end, it is important that teachers understand their own mobility limitations (e.g. knee and hip disorders) and how those limitations can potentially make them more susceptible to stressing their back while trying to work around those other conditions.

Teachers that have never dealt with an acute low back pain episode should be aware that back pain issues often occur suddenly and without warning.  People who are now forced to bend, twist, and lift items in ways that they might not have had to since school let out in May could discover that a simple but awkward movement or lifting event could put them in a situation where their back is talking back to them.

When it comes to back health, remember the old adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  Teachers should always be mindful when bending over and lifting – especially lifting heavy objects.

How to prevent back pain

“The two main things to remember to minimize the risk of injuring your back are to lift with your legs and keep your back as straight as possible AND always ask for help to move awkward and/or heavy items,” Dr. Schultz said. “When possible, avoid bending at the waist and twisting side to side. This is the absolute worst thing you can do to your back because it stresses the lower lumbar discs and is a common movement that leads to a lot of people developing cracks in their disk, or worse, herniating a lumbar disk. Try to avoid this type of motion at all costs.”

In the event of an acute low back pain episode, it is important to keep a few things in mind. Dr. Schultz suggests that finding a position of comfort (either sitting or lying down), minimizing painful movements and activities, taking OTC (over the counter) analgesics such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Motrin) / naproxen (Naprosyn), and using an occasional heating pad or ice pack can often result in significant improvement of most back pain episodes within a few days to a week.

“Most acute low back pain episodes (even those with disabling localized back pain) will resolve with simple self-care,” Dr. Schultz said. “Even one of the most painful causes of back pain, the annular tear, in which a disk cracks, is not necessarily a cause of immediate concern and can be initially managed with the above maneuvers often more effectively with the use of an OTC muscle relaxant. Remember that localized back pain is OK. It may be annoying, but it’s probably not a sign of a real problem so long as you see gradual day to day improvement.”

But what happens if back pain persists beyond a week or is worsening in intensity and frequency rather than improving?  Or what if you begin noticing pain radiating into your lower extremities?  Or, even more concerning, begin noticing weakness in the muscles of your legs or problems with urination and bowel movements? If any of these symptoms develop after experiencing back pain, you should let your doctor know right away or be evaluated at the nearest urgent care center/ER.  While not common, symptoms of lower extremity numbness, weakness, and/or bowel/bladder difficulties should alert you and your doctors to the fact that you may be experiencing more concerning structural abnormalities in your spine. These types of symptoms would prompt a more urgent structural evaluation of your lower back – often with Xrays / CT scans / and MRI scans.

“Acute low back pain associated with these symptoms is often seen with large herniated disks or fractures of the spine, both of which require urgent specialist evaluation. While these types of symptoms are uncommonly associated with most acute back pain episodes, they are symptoms worthy of remembering and should trigger an individual to seek more urgent medical care as opposed to trying to treat the symptoms at home,” Dr. Schultz said.

Most of us will, unfortunately, experience at least one episode of severe low back pain in our lifetime.  However, performing exercises to help strengthen your back, (e.g leg lifts, core strengthening exercises, and general stretching of your trunk and lower extremity muscles) while following steps to minimize the risk of injuring your back (using proper lifting techniques, being aware of other medical conditions that might impede your use of these techniques, and never shying away from asking for help with lifting) are the best ways to minimize the amount of time to recover from one of these episodes.

Furthermore, recognizing the difference between an uncomplicated case of low back pain (i.e. localized pain in the lower back without other neurological or radiating symptoms into the legs) versus more complicated cases (e.g. worsening pain with or without associated new neurological symptoms, pain radiating into the legs, of difficulties with bowel / bladder function) is important and can help provide you guidance on how to handle the initial care needed for episodes of low back pain – avoiding an unnecessary visit to the local urgent care center / ER for an uncomplicated case of low back pain.

Following these bits of advice could set yourself up for a much healthier school year and a much happier and healthier back, which can undoubtedly save you significant time and money!

However, should you experience persistent or serious symptoms because of your back, know that the multi-disciplined team at Longstreet Clinic’s Neuroscience and Orthopedic Center is ready to help at any time. Based on your symptoms, our experienced team will help guide you to the most appropriate care.  Our program, which opened in 2021, is unique in the state of Georgia. With a team of providers dedicated to Orthopedics, Neurosurgery, Pain Management, and Rehabilitative medicine working in concert, while having access to state-of-the art MRI and CT imaging when necessary, our patients experience all levels of care in one convenient location to achieve the optimum result for you.

To get on top of your back concerns, call us today at 678-207-4100 or learn more by visiting Neuroscience & Orthopedic Center.

Article originally published in September 2023.

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