<>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.
<>Exercise is good for low back pain -- but not all exercises are beneficial. Any mild discomfort felt at the start of these exercises should disappear as muscles become stronger. But if pain is more than mild and lasts more than 15 minutes during exercise, patients should stop exercising and contact a doctor. Some exercises may aggravate pain. Standing toe touches, for example, put greater stress on the disks and ligaments in your spine. They can also overstretch lower back muscles and hamstrings.
<>The good news regarding back pain is this: Most cases of lower back pain are believed to be due to “mechanical” problems of the musculoskeletal system rather than serious illness or chronic health problems. Abnormalities, weakness, and added stress placed on the bones, joints, ligaments and muscles can all contribute to back problems. It’s been found that the most common causes of low back pain (there are many!) include: (8)
<>Low back pain can certainly be sensitive to emotional state, just like an ulcer gets worse when you’re stressed. But both are real physical problems! All of this will be discussed in detail, and it’s important, but this is not a tutorial about treating back pain through psychoanalysis, stress relief, and positive thinking. Tools like yoga and meditation are great for those who enjoy them, but not required.
<>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.
<>Free second tutorial! When you buy this tutorial, you will also get Save Yourself from Trigger Points and Myofascial Pain Syndrome! — a $1995 value. The low back pain tutorial makes the case that trigger points are a major factor in low back pain. However, trigger point therapy is not an easy skill to master — and it’s an enormous subject. PainScience.com publishes a separate tutorial about trigger point therapy. It’s offered as a free, essential companion to the low back pain tutorial. As a pair, they give you everything you need to know about helping most cases of low back 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 …
<>Most people will experience lower back pain at some point in their life, it is very common. In the old days bed rest was prescribed if your back was “playing-up,” whereas today it is recommended to keep exercising. Of course the exercises you do have to be appropriate, we are not suggesting to go for a run or lift heavy weights, that wouldn’t be smart. However, there are some great exercises you can do which should help alleviate lower back pain. These exercises are extremely gentle, but of course, listen to your body and stop if you experience any pain.
<>Back pain is a symptom. Common causes of back pain involve disease or injury to the muscles, bones, and/or nerves of the spine. Pain arising from abnormalities of organs within the abdomen, pelvis, or chest may also be felt in the back. This is called referred pain. Many disorders within the abdomen, such as appendicitis, aneurysms, kidney diseases, kidney infection, bladder infections, pelvic infections, and ovarian disorders, among others, can cause pain referred to the back. Normal pregnancy can cause back pain in many ways, including stretching ligaments within the pelvis, irritating nerves, and straining the low back. Your doctor will have this in mind when evaluating your pain.
<>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.
<>If you have an attack of lower-back pain that is severe, continuous and not improving, assessment and treatment by a health care professional who focuses on the back or other musculoskeletal problems may help. These practitioners may use both active and passive techniques to help you feel better. Examples of passive techniques that may be used to get you moving include:
<>According to Susi Hately, owner of Functional Synergy, Inc., in Alberta, Canada, and author of several international best-selling yoga books, yoga can be very therapeutic for people with back pain as well. A review of scientific studies published in 2013 in the Clinical Journal of Pain found strong evidence that yoga can help reduce chronic low back pain. Yoga may help improve back pain by loosening tight muscles, building strength and range of motion, and improving breathing, explains Hately. Yoga also focuses on relaxation, which may help to relax your muscles as well as reduce pain perception.
<>2016 — Science update: There is now a good scientific concensus on the subject of spinal fusion, thanks to papers like Mannion 2013 and Hedlund 2016. Putting a spotlight on this called for some serious revision and editing. The whole section is greatly improved. [Section: The back surgery placebo problem, and how it limits our knowledge of the effectiveness of back surgeries.]
<>For instance, there’s good evidence that educational tutorials are actually effective medicine for pain.?Dear BF, Gandy M, Karin E, et al. The Pain Course: A Randomised Controlled Trial Examining an Internet-Delivered Pain Management Program when Provided with Different Levels of Clinician Support. Pain. 2015 May. PubMed #26039902. Researchers tested a series of web-based pain management tutorials on a group of adults with chronic pain. They all experienced reductions in disability, anxiety, and average pain levels at the end of the eight week experiment as well as three months down the line. “While face-to-face pain management programs are important, many adults with chronic pain can benefit from programs delivered via the internet, and many of them do not need a lot of contact with a clinician in order to benefit.” Good information is good medicine!
<>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.
<>Another great exercise for mobilizing the lower back is the bridge, as shown in the image below. To carry out this exercise lie on your back with knees bent and your feet placed hip distance apart on the floor. Take a deep breath in and as you breathe out lift your hips off the floor until shoulders hips and knees are in a straight line. As you breathe in lower your hips to the floor. Repeat eight to twelve times.
<>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.
<>Stretching. Almost everyone can benefit from stretching muscles in the low back, buttocks, hips, and legs (especially the hamstring muscles). These muscles support the weight of the upper body. The more mobile these muscles are the more the back can move without injury. It is typically advised to start small—stretch for 20 to 30 seconds and stop a stretch if it causes pain.
<>How old is your bed? You may be surprised to learn that the average life span of a mattress is less than 10 years. "There's no hard-and-fast rule," says Sean Mackey, chief of the division of pain medicine at Stanford University, "but if your mattress is sagging significantly or is more than 6 to 8 years old, I'd think about getting a new one. Something else to consider: a firm mattress may not do your back any favors, says Carmen R. Green, a physician at the University of Michigan Back & Pain Center. A number of studies over the years suggest that people with lower back pain who sleep on medium-firm mattresses do better than those with firm beds.
<>Clinical examination and diagnostic skills are essential in the workup of low back pain. Athletes with neurologic compromise, fever, chills, or incontinence of bowel or bladder function or those with mechanism of action that could result in fracture or other serious injuries must first be evaluated for emergent causes. Workup and diagnosis must be individualized on the basis of differential diagnosis.
<>Writers go on and on about how grateful they are for the support they had while writing one measly book, but this website is a much bigger project. PainScience.com was originally created in my so-called “spare time” with a lot of assistance from family and friends. Thanks to my wife for countless indulgences large and small; to my parents for (possibly blind) faith in me, and much copyediting; and to friends and technical mentors Mike, Dirk, Aaron, and Erin for endless useful chats, repeatedly saving my ass, and actually building many of the nifty features of this website.
<>Soft tissue therapies help treat the underlying causes of back pain, such as poor posture, muscular compensations, and weakness through manipulative, hands-on adjustments. These natural therapies can help “turn on” muscles that have been “turned off” due to past injuries and therefore eliminate added stress on painful parts of the back or legs. I recommend finding a practitioner who offers one of the following:
<>Today, the most common conventional treatments for lower back pain relief are medications, including NSAIDS like aspirin and Tylenol, along with more potent prescription painkillers, such analgesics. These drugs can potentially cause adverse side effects in some patients and commonly don’t solve the underlying causes of lower back pain (such as poor posture, obesity or exercise-related strains). Some medications for back pains have even been tied to complications, such as liver damage or intestinal bleeding, when taken for long periods of time or in high doses.
<>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.
<>Is “much” information really “just plain wrong”? I will establish this in the sections ahead with a steady supply of clearly explained references to the medical literature that patients can understand and professionals can respect. This extra layer of information in easy-to-use footnotes is available for any reader who wants to dig deeper and check my facts. For example, here’s a good start: In 2010, the Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery reported that “the quality and content of health information on the internet is highly variable for common sports medicine topics,” such as knee pain and low back pain — a bit of an understatement, really. Expert reviewers examined about 75 top-ranked commercial websites and another 30 academic sites. They gave each a quality score on a scale of 100. The average score? Barely over 50! For more detail, see Starman et al. BACK TO TEXT
<>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.
<>Too much tension and tightness can cause back pain. "Our goal in increasing flexibility is to put an equal load throughout the body from the feet all the way up to the head,” Davis says. “One good exercise is to sit on the edge of the bed with one leg extended and the other one on the floor. Give your hamstrings a stretch by leaning forward while keeping your back in a neutral position.”
<>The treatment of lumbar strain consists of resting the back (to avoid reinjury), medications to relieve pain and muscle spasm, local heat applications, massage, and eventual (after the acute episode resolves) reconditioning exercises to strengthen the low back and abdominal muscles. Initial treatment at home might include heat application, acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), and avoiding reinjury and heavy lifting. Prescription medications that are sometimes used for acute low back pain include anti-inflammatory medications, such as sulindac (Clinoril), naproxen (Naprosyn), and ketorolac (Toradol) by injection or by mouth, muscle relaxants, such as carisoprodol (Soma), cyclobenzaprine (Flexeril), methocarbamol (Robaxin), and metaxalone (Skelaxin), as well as analgesics, such as tramadol (Ultram).
<>Depending on what the doctor suspects is wrong with you, the doctor may perform an abdominal examination, a pelvic examination, or a rectal examination. These exams look for diseases that can cause pain referred to your back. The lowest nerves in your spinal cord serve the sensory area and muscles of the rectum, and damage to these nerves can result in inability to control urination and defecation. Thus, a rectal examination is essential to make sure that you do not have nerve damage in this area of your body.
<>Infection of the discs (septic discitis) and bone (osteomyelitis) is extremely rare. These conditions lead to localized pain associated with fever. The bacteria found when these tissues are tested with laboratory cultures include Staphylococcus aureus and Mycobacterium tuberculosis (TB bacteria). TB infection in the spine is called Pott's disease. These are each very serious conditions requiring long courses of antibiotics. The sacroiliac joints rarely become infected with bacteria. Brucellosis is a bacterial infection that can involve the sacroiliac joints and is usually transmitted in raw goat's milk.
<>Three small higher quality trials found that systemic corticosteroids were not clinically beneficial compared with placebo when given parenterally or as a short oral taper for acute or chronic sciatica.21,28,49 With acute low back pain and a negative straight-leg raise test, no difference in pain relief through 1 month was found between a single intramuscular injection of methylprednisolone (160 mg) or placebo.23 Glucocorticosteroids are banned by the World Anti-doping Association.70
<>Transcutaneous electric nerve stimulation (TENS): TENS provides pulses of electrical stimulation through surface electrodes. For acute back pain, there is no proven benefit. Two small studies produced inconclusive results, with a trend toward improvement with TENS. In chronic back pain, there is conflicting evidence regarding its ability to help relieve pain. One study showed a slight advantage at one week for TENS but no difference at three months and beyond. Other studies showed no benefit for TENS at any time. There is no known benefit for sciatica.
<>“Sitting tightens our hips, weakens our lower back and core, and keeps us stuck in the same position for hours on end," said Lauren Ohayon, a yoga and Pilates instructor in Miami, Florida, who founded the “Restore Your Core” online program. She recommended getting an adjustable standing laptop desk to help you move more throughout the work day. They make it easy to go from sitting to standing in a variety of positions.
<>A neurologist, a doctor specializing in treatment of the nervous system. "Back pain is commonly associated with lower-extremity symptoms, such as numbness and tingling. These symptoms can also be caused by neurological conditions that are not spine-related, such as multiple sclerosis. Neurologists are great at sorting this out and offering solutions," says Dr. Kowalski.
<>Keep moving. "Our spines are like the rest of our body -- they're meant to move," says Reicherter. Keep doing your daily activities. Make the beds, go to work, walk the dog. Once you're feeling better, regular aerobic exercises like swimming, bicycling, and walking can keep you -- and your back -- more mobile. Just don't overdo it. There's no need to run a marathon when your back is sore.
<>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.]
<>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.
<>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.
<>Chronic back pain is straining both physically and emotionally. To manage the frustration, irritability, depression and other psychological aspects of dealing with chronic pain, you may get referred to a rehabilitation psychologist. This specialist may recommend meditation, yoga, tai chi and other cognitive and relaxation strategies to keep your mind from focusing on pain.
<>Pain from spine structures, such as musculature, ligaments, facet joints, and disks, can refer to the thigh region, but rarely to areas below the knee. Pain related to the sacroiliac joint often refers to the thigh, but can also radiate below the knee. Irritation, impingement, or compression of the lumbar root often results in more leg pain than back pain. Pain from the L1-L3 nerve roots will radiate to the hip and/or thigh, whereas pain from the L4-S1 nerve roots will radiate below the knee.
<>Aquatic therapy: Aquatic therapy and exercise can also improve flexibility and decrease pain for some people with chronic low back problems. It is especially beneficial for those patients who cannot tolerate land-based physical therapy.This is because the unique properties of water often make it a safe environment for exercising a sore back, providing gentle resistance, comfort, and relaxation. Fear of pain associated with movement is a major limiting factor for rehabilitation and exercises therapy. The support and warmth of the water enables a person to gradually introduce daily exercise into their treatment.
<>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.
<>Exercise is the foundation of chronic back pain treatment. It’s one of the first treatments you should try under the guidance of your physician and spine physical therapist. However, the same set of exercises doesn’t work for everyone, says Nava. The exercises have to be tailored to your specific symptoms and condition. Maintaining the exercise routine at home is also a big part of success.
<>Nerve irritation: The nerves of the lumbar spine can be irritated by mechanical pressure (impingement) by bone or other tissues, or from disease, anywhere along their paths -- from their roots at the spinal cord to the skin surface. These conditions include lumbar disc disease (radiculopathy), bony encroachment, and inflammation of the nerves caused by a viral infection (shingles). See descriptions of these conditions below.
<>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.
<>Soft tissue therapies help treat the underlying causes of back pain, such as poor posture, muscular compensations, and weakness through manipulative, hands-on adjustments. These natural therapies can help “turn on” muscles that have been “turned off” due to past injuries and therefore eliminate added stress on painful parts of the back or legs. I recommend finding a practitioner who offers one of the following:
<>Rest: The basic treatment for relieving acute back pain from strain or minor injury is a limited period of rest for 24 to 72 hours. An ice pack can be helpful, as can aspirin or another nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) to reduce pain and inflammation. Do not give aspirin to a child aged 18 years or younger because of the increased risk of Reye syndrome. After the inflammation subsides, applying heat can soothe cramped muscles and strained connective tissue.
<>COX-2 inhibitors, such as celecoxib (Celebrex), are more selective members of NSAIDs. Although increased cost can be a negative factor, the incidence of costly and potentially fatal bleeding in the gastrointestinal tract is clearly less with COX-2 inhibitors than with traditional NSAIDs. Long-term safety (possible increased risk for heart attack or stroke) is currently being evaluated for COX-2 inhibitors and NSAIDs.
<>Regular updates are a key feature of PainScience.com tutorials. As new science and information becomes available, I upgrade them, and the most recent version is always automatically available to customers. Unlike regular books, and even e-books (which can be obsolete by the time they are published, and can go years between editions) this document is updated at least once every three months and often much more. I also log updates, making it easy for readers to see what’s changed. This tutorial has gotten 134 major and minor updates since I started logging carefully in late 2009 (plus countless minor tweaks and touch-ups).
<>Meditation has been proven to reduce chronic pain in several scientific studies. Research from Duke University found that people suffering from chronic back pain saw significant reductions in pain and psychological distress after practicing a form of meditation that focuses on releasing anger. In another study, meditators experienced a 40% reduction in pain intensity.
<>In the elderly, atherosclerosis can cause weakening of the wall of the large arterial blood vessel (aorta) in the abdomen. This weakening can lead to a bulging (aneurysm) of the aorta wall. While most aneurysms cause no symptoms, some cause a pulsating low back pain. Aneurysms of certain size, especially when enlarging over time, can require surgical repair with a grafting procedure to repair the abnormal portion of the artery.
<>For short-term pain relief, over-the-counter pain relievers including acetaminophen and NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) are sometimes suggested. The most common NSAIDs include aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), and naproxen (Aleve). Potential side effects of NSAIDs include stomach and liver problems. Talk to your doctor if you don't find relief after taking the recommended dose.

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