7 Myths About Back Pain

By Temma Ehrenfeld and Sherry Baker @temmaehrenfeld
April 11, 2022

Most people have back pain. When you do, you might hear numerous myths about back pain during ordinary conversation. Don't fall for these common misconceptions.

Nearly everyone runs into back problems at some point. If your bad moment has come, and the pain lingers or recurs, you needn’t be embarrassed: even the Queen of England has an issue. Chances are she’s getting the finest medical care. 

You’ll hear any number of myths about back pain in ordinary conversation. Don’t fall for these common misconceptions.


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Myth: You feel more pain when you’ve hurt your back more severely

A sharp sudden pain can indicate an injury. But when pain lasts for several weeks, how much pain you feel doesn’t usually correspond with actual damage. Some people are afraid that pain indicates a problem that could lead to paralysis. The spinal cord actually ends in the upper part of the low back; lower down, there are only very tough nerve roots. A tumor, infection, or unstable fracture could create a risk of paralysis. 

Myth: Middle-aged back problems mean things will get worse with age

It is true back pain becomes more common as you grow older, especially after age 45. However, it’s not inevitable. Genetics play a role in some disorders that can cause back pain, but you can take action to lower other risk factors as you grow older.

For example, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) points out weight gain puts stress on your back, causing pain — so get serious about keeping your weight at a healthy level. Back pain is also more common if you aren’t physically fit because weak back and stomach muscles can’t support your spine. On the other hand, be careful about launching into a strenuous exercise program. Start slowly to avoid sore muscles and possible injury. Your job may be literally a pain the back; if you have a desk job, work on good posture and make sure you have a supportive chair.

Myth: Bed rest is a cure

Not only is bed rest not a cure, but it can make your back pain problem worse. The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS) advises avoiding bed rest. You should, however, limit activities or exercise that causes or worsens pain. Gradually increase physical activity when you can tolerate it. Talk to your doctor or physical therapist before starting an exercise routine to get advice about safe workouts or physical therapy to strengthen the muscles that support your back. Appropriate exercise can help your posture and mobility and decrease pain, according to NIAMS. Remember, the right kind of exercise will help, not hurt.

Myth: You need a harder mattress — or one made out of foam

Chronic back pain and insomnia seem to go together, and science shows that sleeping poorly increases sensitivity to pain. If you sleep better in hotels, your own mattress may be a problem. But don’t assume it should be rock hard. Try one with adjustable firmness or a “medium-firm” mattress. As for foam, there’s no evidence that foam helps back pain. If you’re curious, try a foam topper. Anything you can do to get more or better sleep could help. Are you turning off your electronics well before bedtime and keeping consistent hours?


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Myth: Acupuncture, massage, or chiropractic will bring lasting relief 

Any of these practices could make you feel better, but there’s no evidence they solve an underlying problem. A review of the scientific literature found that acupuncture for chronic general low back pain beats placebo, but the relief is short-term. Chiropractic has better results than acupuncture for low back pain patients, but only for temporary relief. Massage also helps, briefly. Just be careful not to overspend on treatments based on false promises. If you’re also seeing a doctor, it's best to volunteer that you've sought out alternatives.

Myth: For chronic back pain, you need to get an MRI scan to locate a slipped disc and have it fixed surgically 

If your pain is chronic, spine surgery actually has a lower chance of success. The best approach is to try everything before surgery. Targeted exercise and posture training can significantly improve your endurance and strength and lessen your pain. In one study, three sessions a week for three months was linked to better scores both at the end of the three months and six months later. 

Your doctor may recommend an MRI if you don’t respond to treatment. But all kinds of things show up on MRIs — including bulging discs — in people who don’t have any pain. Cognitive behavioral therapy and exercise have similar results to surgery, with much less risk and expense. 

Myth: Back pain is “all in your mind,” so you should just ignore it   

Chronic pain of all kinds is linked to stress. People who are unemployed or have lower incomes have more back problems, some surveys indicate. In about 8 percent of American adults, low back pain is continual, recurrent, or lasts up to six months. Back pain often comes along with other discomfort, anxiety, and insomnia. It’s a chicken and egg issue: pain that interferes with your life is a problem in itself, and fretting and sleep deprivation aggravate it.  

The answer isn’t to call yourself “neurotic” or ignore your pain. If a life problem is weighing heavily on your plate (and shoulders or lower back), consider your pain a wake-up call. Look for a new job, talk to your husband about his drinking, consider seeing a therapist if you are suffering from depression or anxiety symptoms.  

Procrastination is anxiety-provoking; see if your pain lightens when you knock off even a task on the bottom of your to-do list. On the other hand, you may be assuming too much responsibility. As the famous serenity prayer advises, seek “the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” 

Choose to make time — not just once but often and regularly — for the activities that relax you. Maybe you used to read novels on Sundays and now you do chores. You may need solitude, walks in the park[DE10] , or more socializing. You can also learn breathing and relaxation techniques. Self-help books can provide strategies to employ when you run into triggers — the office bully, the traffic snarl — that stiffen up your muscles.


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April 11, 2022

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN