Jacki benvenuto’s back problems started in a way so common, it’s almost cliché.
The 66-year-old Naples resident was rear-ended while sitting at a red light on Airport-Pulling Road. One moment, she was happily tooling along. The next instant—WHAM!—another car slammed into her. Her head, her neck, indeed her whole body lurched forward with the impact—then slammed back into her headrest and seat.
When the dust settled, she was OK, or so she thought. It took a few days for the pain to set in. “It was a sharp burn,” Benvenuto recalls. “I couldn’t go for a walk. I couldn’t stand for any length of time. I was constantly on the floor prone … to get some relief from the pain.”
According to the American Chiropractic Association, eight out of 10 Americans will suffer back pain at some point in their lives. Nationwide, we spend up to $50 billion a year treating back pain. Add in millions more who experience muscle aches and pain in their arms, legs, necks and other parts of the body, and those
sufferers are legion.
Sources of Pain
You can count me in those statistics. In my early 30s, I started having lower- and upper-back pain due to an ill-advised lifting of a computer desk. It got so bad, I once stood up from my bed and collapsed to my knees. It felt as if someone unzipped my back as the muscles cringed and tightened into spasms—one after another.
More recently, I reached into the back seat of my car while driving, and the awkward angle must have stretched or torn something. I felt an immediate shooting pain and, months later, my shoulder continues to ache.
Dr. Robert O’Leary, whose practice is based in Bonita Springs and Naples, is board certified in pain medicine. He says getting to the root cause of a patient’s pain is the first—and often overlooked—step. “A diagnosis is critical,” O’Leary explains. “You can’t fix it until you know what’s wrong.”
A wide variety of causes for muscle pain exist. Among the most common are:
• Poor posture (sitting slumped with rounded shoulders)
• Poor diet (especially caffeine, which contributes to muscle tension)
• Poor sleep habits
• Accidents and injuries
• Diseases (such as lupus, neuropathy and arthritis)
Muscle tension and pain can show up in many ways, too: headaches, restless legs, abdominal cramps, even tremors. It isn’t felt as the stereotypical spasming muscle pain. “For every symptom and every cause, there is a cure, and they are not always the same thing,”
There are two main approaches to treating muscle pain and, in some cases, they overlap. The first route is through traditional medicine—seeing your doctor and following his advice. These steps might include:
1. Changing your lifestyle and getting more exercise
2. Going to physical therapy, along with learning about proper posture, stretching and how to take care of your joints
3. Taking doctor-prescribed mild muscle relaxers to relieve tension and pain
4. Getting trigger point injections directly into a muscle “knot” to relieve severe cases
“We’ll actually give a small injection of Novocain that numbs the muscle and releases the spasm,” O’Leary says. “This is extremely common.” This is the method that worked for Jacki Benvenuto. She had steady shots for the first few weeks and, eventually, the pain went away and didn’t come back. Now, she only goes in for an injection if she aggravates her back.
I asked O’Leary about alternative medical treatments for muscle pain. He informed me that the term “alternative” is outdated. So many medical doctors are discovering the benefits of these therapies that they are now referred to as “complementary medicine.” I wonder if more people will be willing to try them if they don’t seem so “far out” of the mainstream. Complementary treatments include:
2. Medical massage therapy
3. TENS therapy (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation)
With TENS therapy, electricity is sent through the skin into the muscle, forcing it to relax. A company out of Bonita Springs has built an entire business around a TENS system. Prorelax has developed a belt and an arm cuff attached to a small device that emits one-thousandth of an ampere of electricity. This electrical stimulation purports to help block pain signals and provide relief.
Prorelax is targeting golfers and other athletes who strain their muscles while playing or competing. “A lot of golfers stand too stiff. They grip the club too tight. They bend over too much and strain their backs,” says Matt Hoover, an assistant golf pro at The Bonita Bay Club who uses the device regularly.
“I’ll put it on after golf, and it helps you relax, and you don’t feel nearly as much pain. It’s pretty cool actually.”
I’ve never personally tried electrical shocks, no matter how small. However, I did ultimately find relief for my own back pain through regular visits to a chiropractor—which I now swear by after years of unhealthy skepticism.
Proving O’Leary’s point that different people and different pains will respond to different treatments, Jacki Benvenuto found chiropractic care didn’t work for her at all. Neither did over-the-counter pain relievers, but those trigger shot injections finally did the trick. Her relief was both physical and mental. “I got my life back,” she says. “Now I can shop. I go for walks. I can sit in a chair all evening. I lost three years of my life, but I feel human again.”