Nightly News   |  July 30, 2013

Are you managing back pain correctly?

People are increasingly turning to strong and potentially addictive narcotics to cope with back pain, but conservative methods such as physical therapy and over-the-counter medications can make a big difference. NBC’s Dr. Nancy Snyderman reports.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> as we mentioned before the break, our health news tonight concerns back pain. the fifth most common reason for doctor's visits in the country by the way. every case, every back is different. no two people are alike, a big new report says a lot of doctors aren't following the recommended guidelines to treat it, that leads to setbacks and wasted money. we get our report tonight from our chief medical editor dr. nancy snyderman .

>> reporter: nan coffee's back has been bothering her for two years.

>> i feel it more when i'm sitting for a long time.

>> she's one of 66 million americans trying to manage back pain. when it comes to treating it, more doctors and patients are getting it wrong. they're not following guidelines like first using medications, holding off on tests like mri's and ct scans and doing physical therapy exercises instead of turning to surgery. there's been a 50% rise in the number of prescriptions since 1999 . the study also reveals advanced screenings and referrals to specialists have gone up, despite recommendations to treat back pain conservatively.

>> we live in a -- in an instant fix society. everyone is busy, and you want to click on it and be done with it. most of us don't want to wait to get better.

>> reporter: most people with back pain who follow the recommended guidelines will get better on their own in about three months. still, there are certain signs a more aggressive approach may be necessary.

>> severe pain and progressive neurologic changes you have to pay attention to.

>> reporter: that's exactly what happened to nan's husband john.

>> it just got worse and worse, i tried to take everything that was in the medicine chest that would cut it, but nothing really worked, so i went to my doctor.

>> reporter: an mri confirmed a pinched nerve which was not responding to conservative therapy and put him at risk for permanent damage. now occasional steroid injections keep him comfortable. for nan, taking over the counter medication as needed has been enough. her husband gives her credit for handling pain in general.

>> i'm a big baby , she's not. women are much more adept at pain.

>> all joke ago side, there are gender differences when it comes to how well we handle pain. both physically and psychologically, women handle pain better.

>> no comment on that. my question has to do with this, is anyone talking about prevention?

>> yeah, prevention is a big thing. it comes down to this. the stronger your abdominal muscles, the stronger your back is going to be. so increasingly, i think men are migrating away from upper body strength and a lot of weight lifting, into the classes where you've seen women for years, yoga, pilates, sometimes even dance. don't forget to stretch. the more limber you are, the less likely you are to injure your back too.

>> nancy, thanks, as always.