<>“The Pain Perplex,” a chapter in the book Complications, by Atul Gawande. Gawande’s entire book is worth reading, but his chapter on pain physiology is certainly the best summary of the subject I have ever read, and a terrific reminder that good writing for a general audience can be just as illuminating for professionals. Anyone struggling with a pain problem should buy the book for this chapter alone, though you are likely to enjoy the whole thing. Much of the chapter focuses on one of the most interesting stories of low back pain I’ve read, and it is a responsible and rational account — although Gawande, like most doctors, seems to be unaware of the clinical significance, or even existence, of myofascial trigger points.
<>Research is being conducted on certain treatments that stimulate nerves to reduce chronic back pain. Your doctor may consider adding acupuncture to your treatment plan if you aren't finding relief with more conservative care. Another method your doctor might suggest is transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), during which mild electric pulses are delivered to the nerves to block incoming pain signals.
<>People who used an ointment that contains this plant-based extract for 5 days reduced the intensity of lower back pain by 95%, according to a 2009 study conducted by Merck (which manufactures the ointment). In comparison, a placebo group had a 38% reduction in pain during that same time, according to the study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. Look for comfrey root ointment in health food stores or online. Just don't use it for more than 10 days at a time—it can be toxic.
<>If you have severe back pain, if your back pain has not improved after two weeks, or if you are experiencing any of the following symptoms, you should contact your doctor: numbness in your genital area; pins and needles or numbness/altered sensation down your legs; altered walking patterns, ie losing balance and falling over; unexplained weight loss or gain; or night pain.
<>Imaging is not warranted for most patients with acute low back pain. Without signs and symptoms indicating a serious underlying condition, imaging does not improve clinical outcomes in these patients.9–11 Even with a few weaker red flags, four to six weeks of treatment is appropriate before consideration of imaging studies.8–10 If a serious condition is suspected, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is usually most appropriate. Computed tomography is an alternative if MRI is contraindicated or unavailable.10 Clinical correlation of MRI or computed tomography findings is essential because the likelihood of false-positive results increases with age.12–14 Radiography may be helpful to screen for serious conditions, but usually has little diagnostic value because of its low sensitivity and specificity.10
<>Aquatic therapy is essentially physical therapy in a pool. Instead of using weights for resistance, patients use the resistance of the water. Studies show it may help alleviate lower back pain. In one 2013 study, sedentary adults who underwent aquatic therapy five times a week for two months saw reductions in pain and increases in quality of life. One smaller study found that aquatic therapy also helped pregnant women who were experiencing aching lower backs.
<>In a 2011 research review published in the British Journal of Anaesthesia, investigators looked at the available research on the use of topically applied capsaicin in the treatment of several types of chronic pain. This included two clinical trials examining back pain, both of which found that capsaicin helped reduce low back pain without causing notable side effects.
<>Sitting at a desk for eight (or more) hours a day can really do a number on your back. Make sure to sit with your back against your chair (get a lumbar pillow if you chair doesn’t allow this) and both feet flat on the floor. Another option: Try using a stability ball as your desk chair like many Health staffers do—good posture is a must just to stay on the thing. Start off slow (20 minutes at a time), and if it feels good, stick with it.
<>Piriformis Muscle Stretch. Lie on the back with knees bent and both heels on the floor. Cross one leg over the other, resting the ankle on the bent knee, then gently pull the bottom knee toward the chest until a stretch is felt in the buttock. Or, lying on the floor, cross one leg over the other and pull it forward over the body at the knee, keeping the other leg flat.
<>Epidural steroid injections are most commonly used in situations of radicular pain, which is a radiating pain that is transmitted away from the spine by an irritated spinal nerve. Irritation of a spinal nerve in the low back (lumbar radiculopathy) causes pain that goes down the leg. Epidural injections are also used to treat nerve compression in the neck (cervical spine), referred to as cervical radiculopathy, which causes pain.
<>Spinal Manipulation and Chiropractic Techniques. Low-quality evidence shows that spinal manipulation may be more effective than sham treatments in the short-term reduction of pain (less than six weeks), but no more effective in reducing disability.18,20,42,43 There is little evidence that manipulation is cost-effective for treating acute low back pain.25
<>2011 — Major update: Major improvements to the table of contents, and the display of information about updates like this one. Sections now have numbers for easier reference and bookmarking. The structure of the document has really been cleaned up in general, making it significantly easier for me to update the tutorial — which will translate into more good content for readers. Care for more detail? Really? Here’s the full announcement.
<>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:
<>Start on your hands and knees, and tighten your stomach muscles. Lift and extend one leg behind you. Keep hips level. Hold for 5 seconds, and then switch to the other leg. Repeat 8 to 12 times for each leg, and try to lengthen the time you hold each lift. Try lifting and extending your opposite arm for each repetition. This exercise is a great way to learn how to stabilize the low back during movement of the arms and legs. While doing this exercise don't let the lower back muscles sag. Only raise the limbs to heights where the low back position can be maintained.
<>Stretching your lower back is going to be really helpful in alleviating your lower back pain. Kneel on all fours, with your knees directly under your hips and hands directly under your shoulders. Ensure your spine is in a neutral position. Keep your head in line with your spine, your shoulders back and avoid locking your elbows. Take a big deep breath in and as you breathe out slowly take your bottom backwards towards your heels. Hold the stretch for 20-30 seconds. As you breathe in bring your body up onto all fours again. Repeat six to eight times.
<>White willow bark, for instance, may have pain-relieving properties similar to aspirin. Salicin, a compound found in white willow bark, is converted in the body to salicylic acid, just as aspirin is. Salicylic acid is believed to be the active compound that relieves pain and inflammation. Another herb sometimes used in the treatment of back pain is devil's claw. Devil's claw contains harpagosides, which are chemical compounds found to possess anti-inflammatory properties.
<>You don’t need to take my word for anything — you can just take the word of the many low back pain medical experts that I quote,12 and the hard evidence that their opinions are based on. At the same time, I am realistic about the limits of the science, much of which is pretty junky.13 My own credentials are somewhat beside the point. My decade of professional experience as a Registered Massage Therapist does help me understand and write about low back pain, but what really matters is that I refer to and explain recent scientific evidence, but without blindly trusting it.
<>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.
<>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.
<>Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.
<>Staying in bed for any prolonged period can make you stiff and increase pain. When you don’t move and bend, you lose muscle strength and flexibility. With bed rest, you lose about 1 percent of your muscle strength each day. And you can lose 20 to 30 percent in a week. It becomes more difficult to return to any activity. As you become weaker and stiffer your recovery takes longer.
<>Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.
<>An ancient mind-body practice, meditation has been found to increase pain tolerance and promote management of chronic pain in a number of small studies. In addition, a number of preliminary studies have focused specifically on the use of meditation in the management of low back pain. A 2008 study published in Pain, for example, found that an eight-week meditation program led to an improvement of pain acceptance and physical function in patients with chronic low back pain. The study included 37 older adults, with members meditating an average of 4.3 days a week for an average of 31.6 minutes a day.
<>Most persons will experience acute low back pain during their lifetime. The first episode usually occurs between 20 and 40 years of age. For many, acute low back pain is the first reason to seek medical care as an adult. Pain can be moderate to severe and debilitating, causing anxiety. Many cases are self-limited and resolve with little intervention. However, 31 percent of persons with low back pain will not fully recover within six months,1 although most will improve. Recurrent back pain occurs in 25 to 62 percent of patients within one to two years, with up to 33 percent having moderate pain and 15 percent having severe pain.2–4
<>A great exercise for the lower tummy muscles is shown in the image below. It is extremely gentle and also very effective. Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Breathe in and as you breathe out bring one knee in towards your chest and as you breathe in return the foot to the floor. Repeat this exercise six to eight times on each leg.
<>A great exercise for the lower tummy muscles is shown in the image below. It is extremely gentle and also very effective. Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Breathe in and as you breathe out bring one knee in towards your chest and as you breathe in return the foot to the floor. Repeat this exercise six to eight times on each leg.
<>While it’s true that some lower back pain just cannot be fixed, it’s also true that many “incurable” cases do turn out to be surprisingly treatable. People who believed for years that their pain was invincible have found relief. Not always, and often not completely — but sometimes any relief is far better than nothing. How can extremely stubborn pain finally ease up? Simple: because many cases weren’t truly stubborn to begin with, despite all appearances. So many health professionals are poorly prepared to treat low back pain that patients can easily go for months or even years without once getting good care and advice. When they finally get it, it’s hardly surprising that some patients finally get some relief from their pain.
<>Low back pain is the fifth most common reason for all physician visits in the United States.17,29 Approximately one quarter of US adults report having low back pain lasting at least 1 whole day in the past 3 months,17 and 7.6% report at least 1 episode of severe acute low back pain within a 1-year period.8 The prevalence rates of low back pain in athletes range from 1% to 40%.5 Back injuries in the young athlete are a common phenomenon, occurring in 10% to 15% of participants.18 It is not clear if athletes experience low back pain more often than the general population. Comparisons of wrestlers,27 gymnasts,60 and adolescent athletes40 have found back pain more common versus age-matched controls. Other comparisons of athletes and nonathletes have found lower rates of low back pain in athletes than nonathletes.67
<>Sleep disturbances are common among people with chronic back pain, and not getting enough quality sleep may actually worsen inflammation and pain. For a better night's sleep, invest in a good mattress and experiment with different sleeping positions. Adding an extra pillow under your body can help maintain the natural curve in your spine. If you’re a back sleeper, try putting the pillow under both knees; for stomach sleepers, try under your pelvis. If you sleep on your side, sleeping with a pillow between the knees may help.
<>2011 — Major update: Major improvements to the table of contents, and the display of information about updates like this one. Sections now have numbers for easier reference and bookmarking. The structure of the document has really been cleaned up in general, making it significantly easier for me to update the tutorial — which will translate into more good content for readers. Care for more detail? Really? Here’s the full announcement.
<>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:
<>To ensure a thorough examination, you will be asked to put on a gown. The doctor will watch for signs of nerve damage while you walk on your heels, toes, and soles of the feet. Reflexes are usually tested using a reflex hammer. This is done at the knee and behind the ankle. As you lie flat on your back, one leg at a time is elevated, both with and without the assistance of the doctor. This is done to test the nerves, muscle strength, and assess the presence of tension on the sciatic nerve. Sensation is usually tested using a pin, paper clip, broken tongue depressor, or other sharp object to assess any loss of sensation in your legs.
<>Acute low back pain can be defined as six to 12 weeks of pain between the costal angles and gluteal folds that may radiate down one or both legs (sciatica). Acute low back pain is often nonspecific and therefore cannot be attributed to a definite cause. However, possible causes of acute low back pain (e.g., infection, tumor, osteoporosis, fracture, inflammatory arthritis) need to be considered based on the patient's history and physical examination. Table 1 presents the differential diagnosis of acute low back pain.5,6
<>Tip: One good pre-activity stretch is a yoga move called the cat-cow: Start on your hands and knees with your back straight and your head and neck in line. On an inhale, drop your belly toward the ground and look up toward the ceiling (cow pose). On an exhale, tuck in your stomach, arch your back and lower your head to your chest (cat pose). Do it gently, and stop if you feel any pain.
<>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
<>I found the [Consumer Reports] articles on back pain very disappointing. I hope I can still trust Consumer Reports when shopping for a washing machine, but I have no confidence that I can trust them when looking for an effective medical treatment. They seem not to understand the difference between anecdotes and data, between a popularity contest and a controlled scientific study. These articles may do harm by encouraging readers to try treatments that don’t work and by suggesting that it is reasonable to prioritize testimonial evidence over scientific studies. On the other hand, these articles may do some good insofar as they may dissuade some patients from rushing to a doctor and demanding imaging studies or prescription drugs.
<>Laboratory tests such as complete blood count with differential, erythrocyte sedimentation rate, and C-reactive protein level may be beneficial if infection or bone marrow neoplasm is suspected. These tests may be most sensitive in cases of spinal infection because lack of fever and a normal complete blood count are common in patients with spinal infection.15 Because laboratory testing lacks specificity, MRI with and without contrast media and, in many cases, biopsy are essential for accurate diagnosis.15
<>It is very common for your hamstring muscles, which are found on the back of your legs, to be very tight when you experience lower back pain. For this reason it is recommended to stretch them out. You can see a great stretch for the hamstrings below. To carry out this exercise, lie on your back with both feet on the floor and knees raised up. Loop a towel under the ball of one foot. Straighten your knee and slowly pull back on the towel. You should feel a gentle stretch down the back of your leg, try not to overdo it. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds. Repeat two times for each leg.
<>2011 — Major update: Major improvements to the table of contents, and the display of information about updates like this one. Sections now have numbers for easier reference and bookmarking. The structure of the document has really been cleaned up in general, making it significantly easier for me to update the tutorial — which will translate into more good content for readers. Care for more detail? Really? Here’s the full announcement.
<>You probably don't know it, but you and Paula Abdul have more in common than you think! You are both part of the 65 million Americans affected by back pain. The good news is 95 percent of cases involving back pain do not require surgical treatment. As we age, lower back pain becomes increasingly more and more common. Not to mention, muscle elasticity and bone strength decrease over time, leaving your back vulnerable to strain and injury.
<>I found the [Consumer Reports] articles on back pain very disappointing. I hope I can still trust Consumer Reports when shopping for a washing machine, but I have no confidence that I can trust them when looking for an effective medical treatment. They seem not to understand the difference between anecdotes and data, between a popularity contest and a controlled scientific study. These articles may do harm by encouraging readers to try treatments that don’t work and by suggesting that it is reasonable to prioritize testimonial evidence over scientific studies. On the other hand, these articles may do some good insofar as they may dissuade some patients from rushing to a doctor and demanding imaging studies or prescription drugs.
<>There are no systemic reviews for ultrasound.10 One small nonrandomized trial48 for patients with acute sciatica found ultrasonography superior to sham ultrasonography or analgesics for relief of pain. All patients were prescribed bed rest. For patients with chronic back pain, the small trials were contradictory to whether ultrasonography was any better than sham ultrasonography.2,52
<>Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) are the mainstay of medical treatment for the relief of back pain. Ibuprofen, naproxen, ketoprofen, and many others are available. No particular NSAID has been shown to be more effective for the control of pain than another. However, your doctor may switch you from one NSAID to another to find one that works best for you.
<>Evidence from the small number of placebo-controlled trials does not support the use of transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation in the routine management of chronic low back pain.36 Evidence from single lower quality trials is insufficient to accurately judge efficacy of transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation versus other interventions for chronic low back pain or acute low back pain.10
<>There is strong scientific support for the effectiveness of Alexander Technique lessons in the treatment of chronic back pain, according to a research review published in the International Journal of Clinical Practice in 2012. The review included one well-designed, well-conducted clinical trial demonstrating that Alexander Technique lessons led to significant long-term reductions in back pain and incapacity caused by chronic back pain. These results were broadly supported by a smaller, earlier clinical trial testing the use of Alexander Technique lessons in the treatment of chronic back pain.

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