<>Welcome to one of the Internet’s saner sources of information about chronic low back pain.[NIH] This is a book-length tutorial, a guide to a controversial subject for both patients and professionals. It is not a sales pitch for a miracle cure system. It’s heavily referenced, but the tone is often light, like this footnote about being “shot by the witch.”1 I will offer some surprising ideas — underestimated factors in low back pain — but I won’t claim that all back pain comes from a single cause or cure. It’s just a thorough tour of the topic, the myths and misconceptions, and the best (and worst) low back pain treatment ideas available.
<>To relieve pain all over instead of just in one problem area, Dr. Mark Liponis, the chief medical officer at Canyon Ranch in Tucson, Arizona, recommended an inversion table that provides massage. While it may be expensive for some, he said it could be worth it for managing a chronic pain issue. "Over time can help relieve chronic neck and back pain,” Liponis added.
<>A: It's possible, but very unlikely, that you have arthritis of the spine, but the most common cause of acute low back pain in people your age is back strain. This condition is caused by strain to the muscles or ligaments supporting the spine or a herniation of the lumbar disks (cartilage pads that cushion the vertebrae). It is not always possible to differentiate between the two causes, nor is it necessary. In the vast majority of cases, the pain improves and subsides over several weeks.
<>I’m writing to congratulate and thank you for your impressive ongoing review of musculoskeletal research. I teach a course, Medicine in Society, at St. Leonards Hospital in Hoxton. I originally stumbled across your website whilst looking for information about pain for my medical students, and have recommended your tutorials to them. Your work deserves special mention for its transparency, evidence base, clear presentation, educational content, regular documented updates, and lack of any commercial promotional material.
<>Pain in the lower back or low back pain is a common concern, affecting up to 80% of Americans at some point in their lifetime. Many will have more than one episode. Low back pain is not a specific disease, rather it is a symptom that may occur from a variety of different processes. In up to 85% of people with low back pain, despite a thorough medical examination, no specific cause of the pain can be identified.
<>Over-the-counter pain medications. The most common over-the-counter (OTC) medications are aspirin (e.g. Bayer), ibuprofen (e.g. Advil), naproxen (e.g. Aleve), and acetaminophen (e.g. Tylenol). Aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen are anti-inflammatory medicines, which alleviate low back pain caused by a swollen nerves or muscles. Acetaminophen works by interfering with pain signals sent to the brain.
<>Turns out that the committees that write these things do not necessarily know the science! One of the best reviews of back pain research ever published — Machado 2009, more on this one later — found something really interesting: “treatment recommendations from recent clinical guidelines do not align with the results of this meta-analysis.” In fact, quite a few disproven pain treatments are still cheerfully recommended in otherwise sensible professional guidelines. Eek. BACK TO TEXT
<>Get some exercise. You may be tempted to stay in bed when your back acts up, but exercise and activity can actually help you heal faster and reduce pain. A study of 240 men and women found that regular exercise reduced pain by 28 percent and disability by 36 percent. Low impact, moderate intensity exercise is the safest option. Avoid movements that trigger pain or require excessive jumping or squatting, which can exacerbate injuries. Take two to three minutes at the end of your workout to stretch your back thoroughly. Lie flat on your back and hug your knees to release any tension that developed during your workout.
<>Massage: There's an upside to your discomfort: It's a legit excuse to get a weekly massage. One study found that people who did had less lower back pain and disability after 10 weeks, compared with the control group—and general relaxation rubdowns worked just as well as structural massage targeted at specific parts of the body. Osteopathic and chiropractic therapies—in which joints and muscles get stretched and repositioned—have been shown to work, too. In a study published in the Annals of Family Medicine
<>Stay strong. Once your low back pain has receded, you can help avert future episodes of back pain by working the muscles that support your lower back, including the back extensor muscles. "They help you maintain the proper posture and alignment of your spine," Reicherter says. Having strong hip, pelvic, and abdominal muscles also gives you more back support. Avoid abdominal crunches, because they can actually put more strain on your back.
<>I am a science writer and a former Registered Massage Therapist with a decade of experience treating tough pain cases. I was the Assistant Editor of ScienceBasedMedicine.org for several years. I’ve written hundreds of articles and several books, and I’m known for readable but heavily referenced analysis, with a touch of sass. I am a runner and ultimate player. • more about me • more about PainScience.com
<>For example, ginger is a natural anti-inflammatory agent. It may help reduce inflammation associated with back pain, especially helpful after strenuous activities. Consider simmering fresh ginger root slices in hot water for about 30 minutes to prepare a spicy but soothing cup of tea. Capsaicin has also shown some promise for reducing pain. It’s the active ingredient in chili peppers. You can find it in both topical cream and oral supplement forms.
<>It is not clear whether athletes experience low back pain more often than the general public. Because of a aucity of trials with athlete-specific populations, recommendations on treatments must be made from reviews of treatments for the general population. Several large systemic reviews and Cochrane reviews have compiled evidence on different modalities for low back pain. Superficial heat, spinal manipulation, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications, and skeletal muscle relaxants have the strongest evidence of benefit.
<>In addition to strengthening the core muscles, it's also important to address any mobility problems, says Jacque Crockford, M.S., C.S.C.S., exercise physiology content manager at American Council on Exercise, which can sometimes be what's causing pain. If specific movements like twisting or bending or extending your spine feel uncomfortable, there may be mobility (flexibility) issues at play. Doing some gentle stretching (like these yoga poses) might help. (If it gets worse with those stretches, stop and see a doctor.)
<>Medications. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are often first-line therapy for low back pain. Low-quality evidence suggests that they are effective for short-term symptom relief, compared with placebo.16 No patient characteristics at baseline can predict the success of NSAID therapy.17 Moderate evidence suggests that no one NSAID is superior, and switching to a different NSAID may be considered if the first is ineffective. Whether NSAIDs are more effective than acetaminophen is unknown, but the addition of an NSAID to acetaminophen therapy is no more beneficial than acetaminophen alone.16,18
<>A meta-analysis found traction no more effective than placebo, sham, or no treatment for any outcome for low back pain with or without sciatica.12 The results consistently indicated that continuous or intermittent traction as a single treatment for low back pain is not effective.12 Side effects included worsening of signs and symptoms and increased subsequent surgery; however, the reports are inconsistent.10
<>An essential nutrient available in certain foods (such as fortified milk and fish with small bones), vitamin D is produced naturally by the body during exposure to the sun's ultraviolet rays. But since it's difficult to obtain your recommended daily intake of D solely through dietary sources and sun exposure, many medical experts recommend increasing your vitamin D levels by taking a dietary supplement.
<>Sometimes, however, the conditions that cause acute back pain can lead to more chronic and serious problems. Clues to a different and more serious cause include: persistent pain, pain and numbness that radiate down both the legs, bothersome pain at night plus fever, weight loss and swelling of the joints. If you experience any of these, it's important you consult a doctor who can examine you carefully, X-ray your back and perform some lab tests. Possible causes of pain in these cases could include ankylosing spondylitis or an infection or tumor of the spine.
<>A large Cochrane review of 65 trials (11 237 patients) of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and COX-2 inhibitors in the treatment of acute and chronic low back pain showed that NSAIDs had statistically better effects compared with placebo.51 The benefits included global improvement and less additional analgesia requirement. NSAIDs were associated with higher rate of side effects. There was no strong evidence that any one NSAID or COX-2-selective NSAID is clinically superior to the others. NSAIDs were not superior to acetaminophen, but NSAIDs had more side effects. NSAIDs were not more effective that physiotherapy or spinal manipulation for acute low back pain. COX-2-selective NSAIDs had fewer side effects than nonselective NSAIDs.51
<>The discs are pads that serve as "cushions" between the individual vertebral bodies. They help to minimize the impact of stress forces on the spinal column. Each disc is designed like a jelly donut with a central, softer component (nucleus pulposus) and a surrounding, firm outer ring (annulus fibrosus). The central portion of the disc is capable of rupturing (herniating as in a herniated disc) through the outer ring, causing irritation of adjacent nervous tissue and sciatica as described below. Ligaments are strong fibrous soft tissues that firmly attach bones to bones. Ligaments attach each of the vertebrae to each other and surround each of the discs.
<>Lose excess weight. As we gain weight, stress and pressure on the lower spine and back muscles increases. The heavy weight at the front of the body can cause an increased arch in the spine and may lead to injury and compression of the discs and nerves. Losing weight reduces the tendency to arch the back and relieves pressure on the lower spine and nerves.
<>A pinched nerve causes pain, numbness, or tingling in the affected area due to pressure on a nerve. Caral tunnel and sciatica are two examples of conditions caused by a pinched nerve. A pinched nerve is diagnosed by taking a patient history and performing a physical examination. Electromyography may be performed. Treatment for a pinched nerve depends on the underlying cause.
<>Because back pain can be so debilitating, a lot of people turn to more serious interventions, like surgery or painkillers — but turns out, all you really need is a good stretch. “Most back pain can be resolved by doing regular exercises to keep muscles that support your spine strong and flexible,” says Fei Jiang, PT, DPT, OCS, at Providence Saint John’s Health Center’s Performance Therapy in Santa Monica, California. In fact, a recent study on back pain found that participants who followed a 12-week stretching regimen reported better back functioning, less pain, and a reduced need for pain medication.[1]
<>Even more tragic is that good information exists, and not just here in this book: many medical experts do “get it” (the doctors doing the actual research). But they have fought a long battle trying to spread the word to their own medical colleagues on the front lines of health care. A 2010 report in Archives of Internal Medicine showed just how grim it is:
<>Medications. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are often first-line therapy for low back pain. Low-quality evidence suggests that they are effective for short-term symptom relief, compared with placebo.16 No patient characteristics at baseline can predict the success of NSAID therapy.17 Moderate evidence suggests that no one NSAID is superior, and switching to a different NSAID may be considered if the first is ineffective. Whether NSAIDs are more effective than acetaminophen is unknown, but the addition of an NSAID to acetaminophen therapy is no more beneficial than acetaminophen alone.16,18
<>A common culprit in lower back pain due to sitting are tight or shortened hip flexors, which connect to your iliopsoas muscle, and often result in weak or compromised lower back and glute muscles. The following effective static stretches will help stretch out those muscles and deliver lower back relief. Regular practice of these stretches will also aid in bettering your posture long term.
<>These exercises should be performed three to four times per day when you are experiencing acute low back pain. Be sure to monitor your symptoms while exercising, and stop if you feel any increase in pain. If you have leg pain coming from your back, watch for the centralization phenomenon; this is a good sign that you are doing the right exercise for your condition When your pain has subsided, perform the exercises once per day to help maintain a healthy spine and to help prevent future low back pain.
<>Battié MC, Videman T, Kaprio J, et al. The Twin Spine Study: contributions to a changing view of disc degeneration. Spine J. 2009;9(1):47–59. PubMed #19111259. “The once commonly held view that disc degeneration is primarily a result of aging and wear and tear from mechanical insults and injuries was not supported by this series of studies. Instead, disc degeneration appears to be determined in great part by genetic influences. Although environmental factors also play a role, it is not primarily through routine physical loading exposures (eg, heavy vs. light physical demands) as once suspected.” BACK TO TEXT
<>Nerve blocks, epidural steroid injections, nerve ablations and other types of injection-based procedures are available for chronic back pain. They are used when the source of the pain is known and can sometimes help rule out certain causes if the treatment doesn’t work. Injections may stop or lessen pain for a certain period of time, but are not intended as long-term solutions and shouldn’t be used in isolation.
<>An essential nutrient available in certain foods (such as fortified milk and fish with small bones), vitamin D is produced naturally by the body during exposure to the sun's ultraviolet rays. But since it's difficult to obtain your recommended daily intake of D solely through dietary sources and sun exposure, many medical experts recommend increasing your vitamin D levels by taking a dietary supplement.

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Medical Disclaimer: The material on this site is provided for informational purposes only and is not medical advice. Always consult your physician before beginning any exercise program.

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