Class is in Session! How to Enhance Your Personal Spine Health Literacy

While back pain is a health concern that will impact just about everyone at some point in life, it’s also a condition that can have people desperately searching for relief – sometimes in the wrong places. A quick Internet search of “fast back pain treatment” can yield accurate information for some and perhaps inaccurate information for others – depending on the search algorithms of the individual looking for relief. The question is – how can one tell what advice is “good” when it comes to spine health and what advice is “bad,” or perhaps more accurately – “not right for me?”

To answer these questions accurately and effectively, one must understand one’s “personal health literacy.” Personal health literacy is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as – “the degree to which individuals can find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.” Specifically related to spine health and back pain, an individual must be able to decide whether the information they are accessing about their concerns (online, from a friend or loved one, on TV, etc.) is accurate AND a possible option. This isn’t as easy as it may seem.

People in pain, especially those in chronic pain, tend to make poorer decisions. It’s certainly understandable when you think about it. Pain can consume us. However, studies show that people with recurrent pain conditions (such as recurrent bouts of back pain) report more negative health outcomes from their past decisions than those not battling recurrent pain. For this reason and more, public health organizations consider personal health literacy a social risk. When people have limited personal health literacy, it can put them at higher risk of worse health outcomes, misunderstanding of critical information about their health, and getting lost in the health care system. Studies have shown that more than 30 percent of the adult population in America has limited personal health literacy.

Concerning spine health, I have written extensively about what people battling back pain can do for relief, as well as what they can do to help prevent the pain in the first place:

From an educated and trained spine health expert, these topics are good ones to read and bookmark for future reference. Anytime you are consuming health care information online, always consider the source. Information from a medical doctor, preferably with training and vast experience in spine care, will be your best bet for trustworthy information about back pain and spine health.

An optimal level of personal health literacy should also include seeking medical care from providers who involve you in the treatment decision-making process about your injury or illness. Are you receiving health information or treatment recommendations from a trustworthy provider who answers your questions and helps you make the best decisions? For any treatment to work well, the person receiving it needs to believe it is right for them. If you don’t think a treatment will work for you, or worse, are made to feel bad when you voice such a concern to your provider, it might be time to find a different doctor to treat your back pain. Personal health literacy also includes becoming a strong advocate for your health.

Whether you’re someone who battles occasional bouts of back pain or chronic, taking control of your personal health, literacy is a must for everyone. So crack open the books and do your homework because your spine health depends on it.


Neel Anand MD