<>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:
<>Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans are a highly detailed test and are very expensive. The test does not use X-rays but very strong magnets to produce images. Their routine use is discouraged in acute back pain unless a condition is present that may require immediate surgery, such as with cauda equina syndrome or when red flags are present and suggest infection of the spinal canal, bone infection, tumor, or fracture.
<>Testimonials on health care websites reek of quackery, so publishing them has always made me a bit queasy. But my testimonials are mostly about the quality of the information I’m selling, and I hope that makes all the difference. So here’s some highlights from the kind words I’ve received over the years … plus some of the common criticisms I receive, at the end. These are all genuine testimonials, mostly received by email. In many cases I withold or change names and identifying details.
<>To understand various causes of low back pain, it is important to appreciate the normal design (anatomy) of the tissues of this area of the body. Important structures of the low back that can be related to symptoms in this region include the bony lumbar spine (vertebrae, singular = vertebra), discs between the vertebrae, ligaments around the spine and discs, spinal cord and nerves, muscles of the low back, internal organs of the pelvis and abdomen, and the skin covering the lumbar area.
<>When you first hurt your back, one of the best back pain remedies is to ice the area. Injury to a muscle means that blood will rush to the site, bringing healing chemicals to ease the pain. Unfortunately, this leads to swelling, and that swelling leads to pain. Applying cold compresses constricts the blood vessels, and this reduces the flow of that blood. The reduction in swelling means that you will have less pain, and this is a great way to relieve back pain naturally. Be sure to keep the cold on for 20 minutes and off for 40. Don’t use this method after the first 24 hours. These are 10 surprising reasons your back hurts.
<>2010 — Like new: Rewritten. I’ve lost track and can’t be bothered to go back into the archives to figure it out for sure, but I think that this section was brand new (but never announced) late in 2009, and then this past week I gave it a substantial upgrade: it is now one of the best-referenced chapters in the book, and it says as much as probably needs to be said on the subject — or more! [Section: Core strengthening has failed to live up to the hopes and dreams of therapists and patients.]
<>Degenerative bone and joint conditions: As we age, the water and protein content of the body's cartilage changes. This change results in weaker, thinner, and more fragile cartilage. Because both the discs and the joints that stack the vertebrae (facet joints) are partly composed of cartilage, these areas are subject to wear and tear over time (degenerative changes). Degeneration of the disc is called spondylosis. Spondylosis can be noted on X-rays of the spine as a narrowing of the normal "disc space" between the vertebrae. It is the deterioration of the disc tissue that predisposes the disc to herniation and localized lumbar pain ("lumbago") in older patients. Degenerative arthritis (osteoarthritis) of the facet joints is also a cause of localized lumbar pain that can be detected with plain X-ray testing. These causes of degenerative back pain are usually treated conservatively with intermittent heat, rest, rehabilitative exercises, and medications to relieve pain, muscle spasm, and inflammation.
<>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 very important muscle to strengthen is the transverse abdominis, which provides a great deal of support for the lower back. In many people this muscle is extremely weak and this can lead to lower back pain. A very gentle and safe way to strengthen this muscle is shown below. To carry out this exercise lie on your back, place a small cushion under your head, and bend your knees. Your feet should be hip distance apart and placed on the floor. Keep your upper body relaxed and your chin gently tucked in. Take a deep breath in, and as you breathe out focus on drawing your belly button in towards your spine. Hold this gentle contraction for 5 to 10 seconds. As you breathe out relax your tummy muscles. This is a slow, gentle tightening so aim to use less than 25% of your maximum strength. Repeat five times.
<>A physiatrist or interventional pain management doctor may help you avoid more invasive treatments. “These can include medications delivered to the spine such as epidural steroid injections to reduce inflammation, or radiofrequency nerve ablations to reduce transmission of neck or back pain,” explains Koser. The expert you meet with will go over all of the options available to you.
<>Use capsaicin cream. Capsaicin is a substance found in chili peppers. When used medicinally it helps reduces the amount of substance P, a neurotransmitter that leads to pain impulses in the brain. One study showed that after 3 weeks of capsaicin use, patients had a significant reduction in pain. To use: apply topically, at least twice per day, for maximum relief. The warm sensation also allows you to stretch and move without pain.
<>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 …
<>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.
<>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.
<>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.
<>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.
<>That being said, the best medicine for dealing with back pain is (drum roll please)…. EXERCISE! And before you jump to the conclusion that the fitness professional is turning to exercise yet again, there are just a few other professionals who would agree, namely Harvard Medical School, The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons and the Mayo Clinic. All three organizations list exercise as their number one solution for low back pain prevention. In addition, the American Council on Exercise recommends specific dos and don'ts for exercising with low back pain. Yes, the recommendations for exercise seem to be overwhelming when it comes to dealing with back pain. However, the type of exercise you perform is going to make a difference and when it comes to exercising to relieve back pain there are two important goals:
<>This extremely popular 2017 article on Vox.com the “new science” of low back pain was praised by many because it superficially seems to be very modern and science-y, and it correctly dismisses a number of myths, but I think it’s an exasperating failure. It creates a strong impression of being scientifically rigorous without actually being so. It brims with promising science news about alternative treatments that do not actually stand up to more cynical and experienced analysis. Adding to the façade of scientific credibility, many of the right caveats and disclaimers about the “new science” are technically there — warnings about small effect sizes, mixed evidence, and potential flaws — but these cautions are also belated and consistently understated. The tone is overwhelmingly sunny and naïve, as though we are on the verge of a revolution in back pain treatment thanks to … a bunch of stuff that has been around forever and has clearly not been saving the world from chronic low back pain.
<>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.
<>Most back pain can be successfully treated without surgery. If conservative back pain treatment fails, or if you have difficulty standing or walking, you may be a candidate for surgery. Dr. Stieber is a leader in the use of minimally-invasive surgical techniques with advanced expertise in restoring mobility to the back and helping his New York patients return to activity and an improved quality of life.
<>Music therapy is a low-cost natural therapy that may reduce some of the stress of chronic pain in conjunction with other treatments. Studies find that it may reduce the disability, anxiety, and depression associated with chronic pain. It is thought to help because it can shift attention away from the unpleasant sensations of pain, and it may cause the release of endorphins or changes in catecholamine levels.
<>The mission of the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases is to support research into the causes, treatment, and prevention of arthritis and musculoskeletal and skin diseases; the training of basic and clinical scientists to carry out this research; and the dissemination of information on research progress in these diseases.
<>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.
<>Spines haven’t changed in the last century,21 and yet modern civilization suffers from a great plague of low back pain.2223 Yet the real causes of most back pain are obscured by medical mythology and misunderstanding.24 Before I discuss what does cause most low back pain, it’s important to talk about what does not cause it. In this section, I will challenge the mythology in just a few paragraphs, supported by over thirty references to the best scientific information available — references you can check for yourself. This is quite different than most sources of patient-focused low back pain information, which tend to avoid discussing the evidence.
<>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.
<>MRI (or magnetic resonance imaging) scan is a radiology technique which uses magnetism, radio waves, and a computer to produce images of body structures. MRI scanning is painless and does not involve X-ray radiation. Patients with heart pacemakers, metal implants, or metal chips or clips in or around the eyes cannot be scanned with MRI because of the effect of the magnet.
<>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.
<>Testimonials on health care websites reek of quackery, so publishing them has always made me a bit queasy. But my testimonials are mostly about the quality of the information I’m selling, and I hope that makes all the difference. So here’s some highlights from the kind words I’ve received over the years … plus some of the common criticisms I receive, at the end. These are all genuine testimonials, mostly received by email. In many cases I withold or change names and identifying details.
<>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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