<>Back pain is one of the most common reasons why people visit a health care provider. The good news is that the pain often goes away on its own, and people usually recover in a week or two. Many people want to stay in bed when their back hurts. For many years, getting bed rest was the normal advice. But current studies recommend no bed rest at all and stress that staying in bed longer than 48 hours not only won’t help but it may, in fact, actually delay your recovery. Here’s why:
<>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.
<>Most of us spend a good part of our day sitting down, which may be more harmful than you realize. You can minimize the impact by maintaining good posture. Correct posture in a chair means having all the bones in your spine lined up neatly, like a stack of perfectly aligned blocks. You should keep your feet flat on the floor and your computer keyboard within easy reach so you’re not leaning forward or slumping. This is part of proper office ergonomics.
<>This myth of “mechanical” failure of the low back has many unfortunate consequences, such as unnecessary fusion surgeries — a common and routinely ineffective procedure — and low back pain that lasts for years instead of months or weeks. The seriousness of chronic low back pain is often emphasized in terms of the hair-raising economic costs of work absenteeism, but it may well be far worse than that — a recent Swedish study shows that it probably even shortens people lives.8 The stakes are high. “Tragedy” is not hyperbole.
<>Since I first started treating low back pain in 2000, there’s been an explosion of free online information about it — countless poor quality articles. Back in the day, we actually had to go to a doctor or buy a book to get shoddy back pain information — now it’s just a Google search away.234 Even many better articles still have serious “attitude” problems.5 But it’s worse than that: even professional back pain guidelines are often misleading.6 For instance, despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, it’s extremely common to incorrectly portray back pain as a “mechanical” problem, as if the spine is a fragile structure which breaks down and causes pain.7 This is based on decades old misconceptions about how backs work, and how pain works, which the medical world is only gradually learning to leave behind.
<>Acute low back pain is one of the most common reasons for adults to see a family physician. Although most patients recover quickly with minimal treatment, proper evaluation is imperative to identify rare cases of serious underlying pathology. Certain red flags should prompt aggressive treatment or referral to a spine specialist, whereas others are less concerning. Serious red flags include significant trauma related to age (i.e., injury related to a fall from a height or motor vehicle crash in a young patient, or from a minor fall or heavy lifting in a patient with osteoporosis or possible osteoporosis), major or progressive motor or sensory deficit, new-onset bowel or bladder incontinence or urinary retention, loss of anal sphincter tone, saddle anesthesia, history of cancer metastatic to bone, and suspected spinal infection. Without clinical signs of serious pathology, diagnostic imaging and laboratory testing often are not required. Although there are numerous treatments for nonspecific acute low back pain, most have little evidence of benefit. Patient education and medications such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, acetaminophen, and muscle relaxants are beneficial. Bed rest should be avoided if possible. Exercises directed by a physical therapist, such as the McKenzie method and spine stabilization exercises, may decrease recurrent pain and need for health care services. Spinal manipulation and chiropractic techniques are no more effective than established medical treatments, and adding them to established treatments does not improve outcomes. No substantial benefit has been shown with oral steroids, acupuncture, massage, traction, lumbar supports, or regular exercise programs.
<>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
<>A rub down can deliver real lower back pain relief. In a 2017 study, more than half of participants told researchers that a series of massage therapy sessions eased their backache. “The study can give primary care providers the confidence to tell patients with chronic low back pain to try massage if the patients can afford to do so,” co-author of the study Niki Munk, PhD, said in a press release. Here are 10 more things you should do if you wake up with back pain.
<>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.
<>Plain X-rays are generally not considered useful in the evaluation of acute back pain, particularly in the first 30 days. In the absence of red flags, their use is discouraged. Their use is indicated if there is significant trauma, mild trauma in those older than 50 years of age, people with osteoporosis, and those with prolonged steroid use. Do not expect an X-ray to be taken.
<>Special thanks to some professionals and experts who have been particularly inspiring and/or directly supportive: Dr. Rob Tarzwell, Dr. Steven Novella, Dr. David Gorski, Sam Homola, DC, Dr. Harriet Hall, Dr. Stephen Barrett, Dr. Greg Lehman, Dr. Jason Silvernail, Todd Hargrove, Nick Ng, Alice Sanvito, Dr. Chris Moyer, Dr. Brian James, Bodhi Haraldsson, Diane Jacobs, Adam Meakins, Sol Orwell, Laura Allen, Dr. Ravensara Travillian, Dr. Neil O’Connell, Tony Ingram, Dr. Jim Eubanks … oh dear, there’s so many more still …
<>A physical therapist will teach you stretches to manage your back pain, as well as exercises to correct any imbalances that might have brought on pain in the first place. Depending on the causes and severity of your back pain, your PT may also employ other treatment techniques, such as ultrasound, electrical stimulation, and active release therapy.
<>Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulator (TENS) machines are small, battery-powered devices that transmit low-voltage electrical currents through electrodes that are attached to your skin. Considered very safe, TENS machines, according to one theory, work by scrambling the message of pain to the brain — literally blocking it. Another theory suggests that the electrical impulses cause a release of endorphins that override the sensation of pain. Many back pain patients have had success with TENS machines, though their effectiveness has not been clearly proven in controlled studies. Ask your doctor or physical therapist if this therapy might be right for you.
<>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.
<>To prevent back pain, you need to work on strength and flexibility through the entire kinetic chain. Your spine and spinal muscles get lots of support from your core. In addition, tightness or weakness in your glutes, hips, quads, and hamstrings will impact the muscles in your lower back, putting more strain on those muscles and setting them up for a spasm.
<>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.
<>Long-term bed rest is not only no longer considered necessary for most cases of back pain, it is actually potentially harmful, making recovery slower and potentially causing new problems. In most cases, you will be expected to start normal, nonstrenuous activity (such as walking) within 24 to 72 hours. After that ask your doctor about controlled exercise or physical therapy. Physical therapy treatments may employ massage, ultrasound, whirlpool baths, controlled application of heat, and individually tailored exercise programs to help you regain full use of the back. Strengthening both the abdominal and back muscles helps stabilize the spine. You can help prevent further back injury by learning - and doing - gentle stretching exercises and proper lifting techniques, and maintaining good posture.
<>One of the most common reasons people develop low back pain is posture. Postural problems, including spinal abnormalities, along with muscular compensations or inactivity put added pressure on the back. Although people of all ages experience low back pain — including both athletes and those who are sedentary — middle-aged to older adults (especially when they’re overweight) are most likely to develop severe symptoms and therefore can benefit from lower back pain relief treatments like chiropractic care, soft tissue therapy and regular exercise.
<>Physical therapists often recommend aquatic therapy — including exercises done in warm, therapeutic pools — for back pain. The buoyancy of the water helps alleviate strain on the joints to encourage strengthening and gentle stretching of the muscles. Even floating in warm water can help relax muscles and release tension as well as increase circulation, according to the Arthritis Foundation. With home whirlpool baths, try aiming the jets directly at your sore spots for a soothing underwater massage.
<>Can stomach problems cause lower back pain? The back is a sensitive part of the body, which has many nerves and organs nearby. This means that issues such as digestive conditions can occur at the same time as back pain. Back pain and bloating are common symptoms of injury, pregnancy, or gastrointestinal problems. Treatment depends on the cause. Learn more here. Read now
<>Exercise therapy appears to be slightly effective at decreasing pain and improving function in adults with chronic low back pain.30 In subacute low back pain, there is weak evidence that a graded activity program improves absenteeism.30 In acute low back pain, exercise therapy was no better than no treatment or conservative treatments. Exercise therapy using individualized regimens, supervision, stretching, and strengthening was associated with the best outcomes. The addition of exercise to other noninvasive therapies was associated with small improvements in pain and function.
<>Taking NSAIDs like ibuprofen will help decrease inflammation in the short term. Couple that with heat and ice therapy to stop spasms, recommends Laser Spine Institute chiropractor, Robert Koser, DC. He adds that what you eat also makes a difference. A healthy, anti-inflammatory diet will turn down pain and help you lose weight, as excess pounds put a strain on your spine.
<>Roughly 8 out of 10 people suffer from back pain at some point during their lives. Women, in particular, are prone to posture and back problems—thanks to toting around outrageously heavy purses, going through pregnancy, or giving one-hip rides to kids. Whether you’re in the midst of fighting the ache or just want to prevent it, here are some expert-endorsed quick-and-easy ways to wage your war.
<>Long periods of inactivity in bed are no longer recommended, as this treatment may actually slow recovery. Spinal manipulation for periods of up to one month has been found to be helpful in some patients who do not have signs of nerve irritation. Future injury is avoided by using back-protection techniques during activities and support devices as needed at home or work.
<>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]
<>Steroids: Oral steroids can be of benefit in treating acute sciatica. Steroid injections into the epidural space have not been found to decrease duration of symptoms or improve function and are not currently recommended for the treatment of acute back pain without sciatica. Benefit in chronic pain with sciatica remains controversial. Injections into the posterior joint spaces, the facets, may be beneficial for people with pain associated with sciatica. Trigger point injections have not been proven helpful in acute back pain. Trigger point injections with a steroid and a local anesthetic may be helpful in chronic back pain. Their use remains controversial.
<>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.
<>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:
<>Paget's disease can be diagnosed on plain X-rays. However, a bone biopsy is occasionally necessary to ensure the accuracy of the diagnosis. Bone scanning is helpful to determine the extent of the disease, which can involve more than one bone area. A blood test, alkaline phosphatase, is useful for diagnosis andmonitoring response to therapy. Treatment options include aspirin, other anti-inflammatory medicines, pain medications, and medications that slow therate of bone turnover, such as calcitonin (Calcimar, Miacalcin), etidronate (Didronel), alendronate (Fosamax), risedronate (Actonel), and pamidronate (Aredia).
<>Avoiding injury to the low back is a method of preventing low back pain. Additionally, conditioning exercise programs designed to strengthen the lumbar area and adjacent tissues can help to minimize risk of injury to the low back. Specific programs to relieve and prevent back pain can be designed with the help of physical therapists and other treating health-care professionals.
<>Narcotic pain medications. Narcotic medications, also called opioids or painkillers, alter one’s perception of pain by weakening signals sent to the brain. Narcotic medications are most often used for treating intense, short-term pain, such as acute pain after an operation. Narcotics are rarely used to treat long-term pain, as they have many side effects and can easily become addictive.
<>To improve your workstation, position your computer monitor at eye level, at least 20 inches away from your face. Invest in a comfortable chair with armrests and good lower back support. Keep your head and neck in line with your torso, your shoulders relaxed. While you work, keep elbows close to your body, and your forearms and wrists parallel to the floor.
<>Low back pain can be caused by tumors, either benign or malignant, that originate in the bone of the spine or pelvis and spinal cord (primary tumors) and those which originate elsewhere and spread to these areas (metastatic tumors). Symptoms range from localized pain to radiating severe pain and loss of nerve and muscle function (even incontinence of urine and stool) depending on whether or not the tumors affect the nervous tissue. Tumors of these areas are detected using imaging tests, such as plain X-rays, nuclear bone scanning, and CAT and MRI scanning.
<>But how do you kow if you’re the exception? Can you recognize the early warning sign of cancer, infection, autoimmune disease, or spinal cord injury? These things often cause other distinctive signs and symptoms, and so they are usually diagnosed promptly. If you are aware of these red flags, you can get checked out when the time is right — but please avoid excessive worry before that.
<>The available science includes a 2011 study published in Arthritis Care & Research, which found that a 10-week tai chi program reduced pain and improved functioning in people with long-term low back pain symptoms. The study involved 160 adults with chronic low back pain, half of whom participated in 40-minute-long tai chi sessions 18 times over the 10-week period.

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