<>Poor posture and crookedness is another popular scapegoat — it seems obvious that posture is relevant. Many professionals assume that back pain is some kind of postural problem that you can exercise your way clear of. Unfortunately, the evidence shows that no kind of exercise, not even the most hard-core core strengthening, has any significant effect on low back pain.
<>Does massage really ease back pain once you leave the table? A recent study found that one weekly massage over a 10 week period improved pain and functioning for people with chronic back pain. Benefits lasted about six months but dwindled after a year. Another hands-on approach is spinal manipulation. Performed by a licensed specialist, this treatment can help relieve structural problems of the spine and restore lost mobility.
<>That’s a huge topic, but here’s one simple example of an extremely common problem with back pain science: control groups that don’t control. Rather than comparing a treatment to a good, carefully selected placebo, most studies use a comparison to a treatment that is allegedly neutral, underwhelming, or placebo-ish. That makes the results hard to interpret: if each works about the same, it could mean that the treatments are equally effective … or equally ineffective! So much back pain science has this problem — or any one of a dozen other weak points — that you can effectively ignore at least 80% of all back pain research, because it’s so far from the last word on anything. Good science is essential to solving these problems, but really good studies are also difficult to design and rare. BACK TO TEXT
<>Spinal disc degeneration coupled with disease in joints of the low back can lead to spinal-canal narrowing (spinal stenosis). These changes in the disc and the joints produce symptoms and can be seen on an X-ray. A person with spinal stenosis may have pain radiating down both lower extremities while standing for a long time or walking even short distances.
<>A doctor may recommend a spinal injection to help reduce your back pain. There are different types of injections that doctors specializing in pain relief may use. For example, an injection of a corticosteroid can help relieve inflammation that is causing the pain. Depending on the kind of injection, your doctor may limit your number of doses per year to avoid possible side effects.
<>Do you want to prevent back pain? Try a few basic exercises to stretch and strengthen your back and supporting muscles. Repeat each exercise a few times, then increase the number of repetitions as the exercise gets easier. If you've ever hurt your back or have other health conditions, such as osteoporosis, consult your doctor before doing these exercises.
<>2010 — Upgraded: Section now includes discussion of that bizarre and already infamous paper in the New England Journal of Medicine (see Berman). I also make an important new point: exactly why acupuncture placebos are such a problem for low back pain patients in particular. [Section: The fascinating case of acupuncture, formerly a contender in low back pain therapy, but which has now miserably failed well-designed scientific tests.]
<>CBT: If you consult a psychotherapist for cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), your treatment may include stress management, behavioral adaptation, education, and relaxation techniques. CBT can lessen the intensity of back pain, change perceptions about levels of pain and disability, and even lift depression. The NIH considers CBT useful for relieving low back pain, citing studies that show CBT to be superior to routine care and placebo.
<>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
<>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
<>Data Sources: We searched PubMed for the key term acute low back pain; this term was also searched with the following key terms: medications, nonsteroidals, muscle relaxants, opioids, red flags, differential diagnosis, exercise, McKenzie, spine stabilization, traction, acupuncture, heat, ice, advice, cost, manipulation, chiropractic care, brace, bed rest, massage. In addition, we searched the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Clinical Evidence, Essential Evidence Plus, and the National Guideline Clearinghouse. Search dates: April 2011 and May 2, 2011.
<>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.
<>Why so different? If you pay in United States dollars (USD), your credit card will convert the USD price to your card’s native currency, but the card companies often charge too much for conversion, well above the going exchange rate — it’s a way for them to make a little extra money. So I just offer my customers prices converted at slightly better than the current rate.
<>In some cases, it’s difficult to pinpoint the cause of chronic back pain. “If your doctor has exhausted all diagnostic options, it’s time to seek a second opinion from a back pain specialist,” recommends Nava. It’s important not to make rushed decisions or undergo extensive medical procedures until the origin of the pain is found. Not only may they not help; they could make the pain worse, warns Nava.
<>Cold can be applied to the low back with towels, gel packs, ice packs, and ice massage. Heat methods include water bottles and baths, soft packs, saunas, steam, wraps, and electric pads. There are few high-quality randomized controlled trials supporting superficial cold or heat therapy for the treatment of acute or subacute low back pain. A Cochrane review cited moderate evidence supporting superficial heat therapy as reducing pain and disability in patients with acute and subacute low back pain, with the addition of exercise further reducing pain and improved function.22 The effects of superficial heat seem strongest for the first week following injury.44
<>Well, at least there’s that! But most of what CR published was horrifyingly naive and misleading. I scanned this issue in a grocery store lineup and was rolling my eyes within seconds. And then fuming: it seems like the flood of misinformation about back pain is infinite! I’ve been actively debunking back pain myths for about 15 years now, and the need for it has barely changed in all that time. So-called information like this, reaching a massive audience, seriously exacerbates the problem.
<>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.
<>Among the issues a little downward dog can ease—such as anxiety, stress—yoga may also bring lower back pain relief, particularly if the pain is long-lasting. A 2017 study found that attending weekly yoga for three months was just as effective as physical therapy for alleviating symptoms, and far better than back advice alone. Yoga-goers were also more likely to stop taking medication after a year. Learn more about how yoga eases lower back pain.
<>My original inspiration for this tutorial was Dr. John Sarno’s 1984 book Mind over back pain. (His more recent Healing back pain makes too many empty promises. See my review.) However, as much as I respect Dr. Sarno’s early work, there are at least three reasons why this tutorial is better than his books: (1) I make a much more airtight case against the conventional medical myths of back pain than Dr. Sarno does; (2) I also build a much better case for the real causes of back pain, heavily referencing more credible sources than Dr. Sarno does; (3) and I offer many more practical suggestions than Dr. Sarno does, instead of focusing exclusively on the psychological factors. Although I have less experience and education than Dr. Sarno, I do have a lot more hands-on experience (and the useful perspective of a journalist). BACK TO TEXT
<>Press-ups: While lying on your stomach, put your hands flat on the floor under your shoulders, like you are going to start a push-up. Press your shoulders up and let your hips and low back relax. Your hips should remain in contact with the floor as you press up. Hold the end position for 1-2 seconds and return fully to the starting position. Perform 10 repetitions. Bonus exercise: the Prone Press Up with Hips Off Center.
<>Adherence to exercise is one of the most important factors for long term pain relief. However, maintaining exercise can be difficult for a variety of reasons, including worsened pain with activity, economic constraints, and low motivation.1 In one study, the most common reason for lack of adherence to exercise was increased pain caused by activity.1 When this is the case, an exercise professional can incorporate pain reduction and management as primary parts of the exercise program.
<>Situated between the bones of the spine, intervertebral disks act as cushions and shock absorbers. If they become damaged and start to bulge out between the bones of your lower back (a condition known as a slipped or herniated disk), they can press on your sciatic nerve roots and cause sciatica. Herniated disks are the most common cause of sciatica, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
<>If your back pain hasn't resolved itself within four to six weeks, you'll want to make an appointment with your doctor. Your doc will examine your back and ask you to sit, stand, bend, walk, and lift your legs to see how your pain is affecting your mobility. You'll likely be asked to rate your pain on a scale of one to 10, and you may be sent for imaging tests like an x-ray or MRI. You might be asked to try one of these therapies:
<>Once in a great while some cranky reader (always a guy) writes to tell me, “I didn’t learn anything from your book.” I’m a little skeptical about that, and it’s always tempting to start quizzing! There’s a great deal of information here, including analyses of recent research. Sure, readers who have already done a lot of reading about back pain might already be familiar with a lot of it — but you will know that going in, of course, and you’ll find the nuggets of new information and perspective that any keen reader is always looking for. BACK TO TEXT
<>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.
<>Spinal manipulation: Osteopathic or chiropractic manipulation appears to be beneficial in people during the first month of symptoms. Studies on this topic have produced conflicting results. The use of manipulation for people with chronic back pain has been studied as well, also with conflicting results. The effectiveness of this treatment remains unknown. Manipulation has not been found to benefit people with nerve root problems.
<>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.
<>Physical activity. Exercise helps build strong, flexible muscles that will be less prone to injury. It can also help the healing process for an aching back, prevent problems in the future, and improve function. Work with your doctor to develop an exercise program, or seek a referral to another health professional who can. A good program typically includes the three major forms of exercise: aerobic activity, strength training, and flexibility exercises.
<>Back pain can have many underlying reasons, but often no specific cause will be found and the pain will stop. This chapter will review many of the causes of back pain and proper evaluation and diagnosis. Please be sure to discuss your individual symptoms as well as the suggested treatments with your health-care professional to determine the appropriate diagnostic and treatment plan for your circumstances.
<>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.
<>Massage might be beneficial for patients with subacute and chronic nonspecific low back pain, especially when combined with exercises and education.24 Acupressure or pressure point massage technique was more effective than classic massage. A second systemic review found insufficient evidence to determine efficacy of massage for acute low back pain.10 Evidence was insufficient to determine effects of the number or duration of massage sessions.
<>Epidural steroid injections. This injection involves a steroid administered directly into the outer part of the dural sac, which surrounds the spinal cord. A live x-ray, called fluoroscopy, is used to guide the needle to the correct area. The goal of the injection is to temporarily relieve pain by reducing inflammation around a compressed nerve root.
<>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.
<>To diagnose back pain -- unless you are totally immobilized from a back injury -- your doctor probably will test your range of motion and nerve function and touch your body to locate the area of discomfort. Sometimes blood and urine tests are performed to make sure that the back pain is not caused by an infection or other more widespread medical problem.
<>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.
<>Bed Rest. Bed rest should not be recommended for patients with nonspecific acute low back pain. Moderate-quality evidence suggests that bed rest is less effective at reducing pain and improving function at three to 12 weeks than advice to stay active.46 Prolonged bed rest can also cause adverse effects such as joint stiffness, muscle wasting, loss of bone mineral density, pressure ulcers, and venous thromboembolism.37
<>When structural problems are exaggerated, you also get a plague of bogus explanations and solutions based on that. Spines do degenerate, but not for the reasons most people think they do: genetics is by far the biggest factor in degeneration,27 not your posture, your office chair or mattress, your core stability, or anything else that low back pain sufferers have taught to blame their pain on.
<>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.
<>2010 — Updated: Added a very beefy footnote about some new research showing that muscle imbalance does not result in higher rates of injury. This almost should have been a new section, but I decided to just make it a ginormous footnote — footnotes are there for delving if you want to, that’s the idea! You can read a summary of the research in the bibliography (see Hides et al), but the relevance to back pain is spelled out in detail here. And it’s interesting. [Section: Diagnosis: Your low back is not fragile!]
<>It may seem strange to see a psychologist for back pain. But studies show that cognitive behavioral therapy is very effective in the short and long term at helping chronic back pain. For example, CBT may target how people with back pain think about physical activity -- and why they may be avoiding it -- to help change the way they respond to being active. People who do CBT have reported significant decreases in pain and disability.

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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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