Back pain is a common health complaint and one of the most frequent reasons for missing time at work and going to primary care doctors. Most people will experience back pain at some point during their lives and for many it will be recurrent.

Although back pain may be intense, it is not usually serious. Even though back pain can affect people of any age, it is more common in adults 55 and younger.

What types of back pain are more common in younger or older people?

Usually, people in the 25-55 groups are more likely to have back pain related to a disc problem. For this age group, the spinal discs are more hydrated. This increased level of hydration will increase the hydrostatic pressure within the disc which will lead to increased outward pressure on each disc. Young and middle-aged adults are more likely to be involved in activities that put additional stress on the disc and that can develop into back pain. For people 55 and older, back pain is more often related to degenerative changes at the lumbar spine. These changes are a normal process of aging but may at times contribute to episodes of back pain.

What are the causes of back pain?

The human back is an inherently stable structure consisting of muscles, bones and ligaments. Problems with any of the components may compromise its stability and contribute to pain. Poor posture, bending over or standing for long periods of time or lifting something which is too heavy or lifting improperly may cause a strain to the muscles or a sprain to the ligaments of the spine.

When should a person with back pain seek care?

Research has shown the sooner an individual can be seen, the more effective the treatment will be. Early intervention assists with the natural recovery process. It also allows therapists to educate patients on ways to avoid future episodes of back pain and what to do if they recognize some of the signs of a flare up so they can prevent it from getting worse.

What can a person experiencing repeated back pain do?

It will depend on the person, how they use their back at work, their strength and age. For example, a home health aide or nurse may often lean forward over a bed during a workday to help a patient or manipulate a piece of equipment. We’ll teach them how to lift properly and how to minimize the strain on their spine. If strengthening their legs or abdomen will help, we’ll teach them exercises to become part of a daily routine for preventing back pain. We may also teach them how to do appropriate stretches to counteract the mechanical loads job tasks may place on their back.

What other kinds of treatment are used in treating back pain and when might a patient expect to notice improvement?

Physical therapy is the cornerstone of back pain treatment, but acupuncture, massage and general exercise can also be effective. In some instances, a combination of those treatments may provide the greatest benefit to a patient. Physical therapy should bring improvement to a person with acute pain in a few days. It may take longer, weeks to months, for a patient who has had chronic low back pain to notice a change.

When is surgery used to treat back pain?

In both acute and chronic back pain, the vast majority of cases are treated without surgery. The physical therapists at the Cayuga Wellness Center and at our Brentwood and Cortland locations are trained to recognize the signs and symptoms that may require a surgical consult and can make that referral if needed.

Dr. Rob Kaplan is a physical therapist at the Cayuga Wellness Center of Cayuga Medical Center. He received his master’s degree in physical therapy at Ithaca College and a doctorate degree in physical therapy from the University of St. Augustine. His areas of specialty include orthopedics, sports medicine, spine care and vestibular rehabilitation. He is active in the Ithaca soccer and running communities. He can be reached at (607) 252-3500. More information can be found about the services provided by the Physical, Occupational and Speech Therapy staff at Cayuga Medical Center at

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