With several aspects of daily life changed in some form by COVID-19, many Americans are finding difficulty creating new healthy habits. Since the pandemic began, Americans have spent almost as much time hunched in front of a screen or looking down at their phones as the typical 8 hours they should spend sleeping.
Even prior to the pandemic, many people's day-to-day activities—from sitting incorrectly to overeating—contributed to the decline of their spine and overall physical health.
Recent studies have linked a rise in back pain to COVID-19. But the reality is that the virus doesn't cause back-related issues. Most of them are the result of other health-related factors, according to Gaurav Jain, MD, Neurosurgeon at Main Line Health-Jefferson Neurosurgery.
"COVID-19 doesn't cause back pain. But it can cause generalized fatigue and perceived weakness," Dr. Jain says. "It's linked with not just back pain, but back pain in conjunction with fatigue. All of us, as a consequence of that, developed wear and tear [that] have caused changes within our spines. It's inevitable. It's a part of life."
While back pain is common, it's also treatable—especially if you catch on to the signs early. Here's a breakdown of how back pain may be related to COVID-19, and what to do if you start experiencing back pain.
Back pain is common
If you have back pain, you're not alone. In 2019, nearly 40% of adults reported having back and lower back pain during a 3-month span.
Common contributors of back pain include:
- Bad posture
- Poor diet
- Poor sleeping habits
According to Dr. Jain, the majority of his clients aren't typically people with simple back pain problems. Usually, he sees people who have back pain along with arm or leg pain, numbness, or weakness. These types of compound symptoms are what can lead to a medical issue, he says.
Fortunately, this doesn't necessarily mean surgery. According to Dr. Jain, there are much less invasive ways for most people to stave off back pain before surgery, such as:
- Changing life habits, including sleep, diet, and activity
- Physical therapy and rehabilitation techniques
- Medication to manage pain
How is COVID-19 linked to back problems?
As healthcare services have been delayed because of the pandemic, more people have been reporting back pain. When people already experiencing back issues aren't able to see their healthcare provider in a timely fashion, it only worsens their situation.
"If you're driving a car and the ‘check engine' light comes on and you ignore it, you keep adding more stress to an already stressed system—you can exacerbate it," Dr. Jain explains.
In cases where someone has a spinal condition that was ignored, and they're developing wear and tear at an accelerated rate and they're adopting poorer body mechanics [or] their underlying condition isn't being treated, you can not only hurt the original problem—but you can create accessory problems.
—Dr. Gaurav Jain, MD, Neurosurgeon at Main Line Health-Jefferson Neurosurgery.
"That's how COVID snowballed a lot of spinal conditions. A lot of people were unable to gain access to healthcare, they ignored their condition, and then their condition caused changes in the way they do things. And their spine—or the accessory supportive structures around the spine—was impacted in a [harmful] way," he added.
Older patients and those with chronic medical conditions like arthritis and osteoporosis have been most affected by back-related issues. People within these groups who contract COVID-19 are more likely to experience back pain, but it isn't the cause of it. Due to the fatigue the virus causes in most people, patients' bodies are at greater risk for injury.
What to do if you start experiencing back pain
If you start developing back pain, the first step in relieving your pain is taking a look at your lifestyle and habits. This starts with tracking what you've changed in your life.
"You see the genesis of the problem is starting from changes in life's patterns or activities. It's a lifestyle modification, adjusting to healthier types of activity, reducing triggers or circumstances that are aggravating the condition," Dr. Jain says.
Back pain can occur randomly, and it is often difficult to determine what causes it. Still, some common triggers include:
- Muscle strains, which happen when a muscle is stretched and tears. Minor injuries may cause stress to a muscle, but more serious injuries may involve partial or complete tears in these tissues.
- Ruptured discs, which occur when there's a small crack in the outer layer of tough cartilage and the inner layer of soft cartilage begins to seep out, causing it to push against the nerves of your spine.
- Arthritis, which is a condition where a patient experiences pain, inflammation, and stiffness in one or more joints between bones.
- Osteoporosis, which is a condition that causes bones to become weak and brittle, making them more likely to break.
The next step in the process is to consult with your healthcare provider and start on a treatment plan. "By supporting that with rehabilitative exercises to build the strength of those muscles or supportive structures around the spine and taking medications on a symptomatic basis, the problem starts diminishing," explains Dr. Jain.
Keep in mind—the person who knows your back best is often you. "If someone has symptoms and they are experiencing difficulty continuing their normal routine or they are having new aches and pains, they've got to listen to their body. They've got to rest or avoid strenuous activities which can cause undue strain," he says.
When should you visit a spine surgeon for back pain?
Finding out what is causing your back pain is tricky. The solution could lie in changing the position you sleep in, adjusting how fast you get out of bed, or swapping out the very mattress you rest on. If you've made changes to your lifestyle and are still experiencing persistent back pain, talk to your healthcare provider. They can help you identify next steps, which may include making an appointment with a spine surgeon.
Back pain is common among adults—especially as a result of the pandemic. But if you're aware of the warning signs, you can work with your healthcare provider to improve your back pain and overall wellness.