<>I was an alternative health professional myself for many years — a Registered Massage Therapist, trained in Canada (which has unusually good training standards). Of course, some of my colleagues in alternative medicine were diligent students of medical science. However, in my experience, most were certainly not — indeed, many lacked even the most basic knowledge of how medical science works or how to keep current about recent discoveries with clinical implications. BACK TO TEXT
<>Over-the-counter pain medications. The most common over-the-counter (OTC) medications are aspirin (e.g. Bayer), ibuprofen (e.g. Advil), naproxen (e.g. Aleve), and acetaminophen (e.g. Tylenol). Aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen are anti-inflammatory medicines, which alleviate low back pain caused by a swollen nerves or muscles. Acetaminophen works by interfering with pain signals sent to the brain.
<>Application of Ice or Heat. Low-quality evidence shows that in the first five days of acute low back pain, the use of heat treatments may be more effective for reducing pain and disability than nonheat wraps, NSAIDs, or acetaminophen, but shows no difference between heat application and McKenzie therapy at seven days.32 A low-quality study found that heat therapy in conjunction with education or NSAIDs is more effective than education or NSAIDs alone at 14 days.33 Ice and heat therapy have similar analgesic effects.32
<>Not Enough Activity: Sedentary people experience the same kind of pain for the opposite reasons. Muscles that go unused become stiff and inflexible. Sitting all day causes tight hip-flexors, poor posture and weak abdominals. When your muscles are limited to the same basic body position day in and day out they do not learn to move safely and freely through different ranges of motions and are injured more easily at sudden movements. In addition, the body is one long kinetic chain. Tight hamstrings or hip flexors turn into tight hips and glutes, which pull on the back and create pain.
<>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
<>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.
<>Nachemson says, “Rarely are diagnoses scientifically valid … .” And Deyo: “There are wide variations in care, a fact that suggests there is professional uncertainty about the optimal approach.” Many other researchers have made this point, but Sarno states it most eloquently: “There is probably no other medical condition which is treated in so many different ways and by such a variety of practitioners as back pain. Though the conclusion may be uncomfortable, the medical community must bear the responsibility for this, for it has been distressingly narrow in its approach to the problem. It has been trapped by a diagnostic bias of ancient vintage and, most uncharacteristically, has uncritically accepted an unproven concept, that structural abnormalities are the cause of back pain” (p111). BACK TO TEXT
<>Subacute low back pain. Lasting between 6 weeks and 3 months, this type of pain is usually mechanical in nature (such as a muscle strain or joint pain) but is prolonged. At this point, a medical workup may be considered, and is advisable if the pain is severe and limits one’s ability to participate in activities of daily living, sleeping, and working.
<>Not Enough Activity: Sedentary people experience the same kind of pain for the opposite reasons. Muscles that go unused become stiff and inflexible. Sitting all day causes tight hip-flexors, poor posture and weak abdominals. When your muscles are limited to the same basic body position day in and day out they do not learn to move safely and freely through different ranges of motions and are injured more easily at sudden movements. In addition, the body is one long kinetic chain. Tight hamstrings or hip flexors turn into tight hips and glutes, which pull on the back and create pain.
<>Perhaps you bent the wrong way while lifting something heavy. Or you're dealing with a degenerative condition like arthritis. Whatever the cause, once you have low back pain, it can be hard to shake. About one in four Americans say they've had a recent bout of low back pain. And almost everyone can expect to experience back pain at some point in their lives.
<>Most acute low back pain fades steadily — up to 90% of it, for uncomplicated cases.14 So does a lot of so-called “chronic” low back pain!15 But when you don’t recover, many of the therapeutic options — things like surgery for a herniated disc — cause anxiety that is unnecessary and harmful. The purpose of this tutorial is to review and expand the options.
<>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.]
<>An essential nutrient available in certain foods (such as fortified milk and fish with small bones), vitamin D is produced naturally by the body during exposure to the sun's ultraviolet rays. But since it's difficult to obtain your recommended daily intake of D solely through dietary sources and sun exposure, many medical experts recommend increasing your vitamin D levels by taking a dietary supplement.
<>It’s estimated that up to 80 percent of adults experience persistent symptoms of lower back pain at some point in their lives, and about 31 million Americans struggle with the condition at any given time. Given its extremely high prevalence rate — whether due to a weak psoas muscle, sciatic nerve pain or some other cause — it’s not surprising that lower back pain is considered the single leading cause of disability worldwide according to the American Chiropractic Association, with half of all American workers reporting having occasional back troubles each year. (1) Naturally, this leads to millions searching for lower back pain relief.
<>A 2008 Cochrane review of randomized controlled trials for subacute and chronic low back pain included 18 trials of 1179 participants.59 Studies that compared intradiscal injections, prolotherapy, ozone, sacroiliac joint injections, or epidural steroids for radicular pain were excluded unless injection therapy with another pharmaceutical agent was part of one of the treatment arms. Corticosteroids, local anesthetics, indomethacin, sodium hyaluronate, and B12 were used. Of 18 trials, 10 were rated for high methodological quality. Statistical pooling was not possible because of clinical heterogeneity in the trials yielding no strong evidence for or against the use of injection therapy.59
<>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.
<>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
<>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.
<>Break out that bag of frozen peas (or an ice pack, if you want to get fancy) for the first 48 hours after the pain sets in, and put it to use for 20 minutes a session, several sessions per day. After those two days are behind you, switch to 20-minute intervals with a heating pad. Localized cooling shuts down capillaries and reduces blood flow to the area, which helps ease the swelling, says Lisa DeStefano, an associate professor at Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine in East Lansing. Cold also thwarts your nerves' ability to conduct pain signals. Heat, on the other hand, loosens tight muscles and increases circulation, bringing extra oxygen to the rescue.
<>I apply a MythBusters approach to health care (without explosives): I have fun questioning everything. I don’t claim to have The Answer for low back pain. When I don’t know, I admit it. I read scientific journals, I explain the science behind key points (there are more than 460 footnotes here, drawn from a huge bibliography), and I always link to my sources.
<>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
<>High-quality evidence shows that individual patient education of greater than two hours is more effective than no education or less-intense education for pain that persists for four weeks or more.23 Moderate-quality evidence shows that less-intense individual education and advice to stay active have small benefits and are at least as effective as other back pain interventions.23,24 It is unclear whether patient education and advice for patients with acute low back pain are cost-effective.25
<>Another way to get lower back pain relief is to hook up with an expert in physical therapy, who will guide you in safe exercises that can strengthen and stretch the muscles. “This will prevent symptoms from worsening and further damage to the spine,” says Strassberg. She says that PTs address symptoms and target the underlying cause so that you can prevent future discomfort.
<>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.
<>Jackson, M., & Tummon Simmons, L. (2018, April 1). Challenging case in clinical practice: Improvement in chronic osteoarthritis pain with use of arnica oil massage, therapeutic ultrasound, and acupuncture — A case report [Abstract]. Alternative and Complementary Therapies, 24(2), 60–62. Retrieved from https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/act.2018.29152.mja?journalCode=act
<>Acupuncture. Based in ancient Chinese medicine, acupuncture stimulates points on the body thought to correct the body’s “qi,” or life force. It is believed that proper qi decreases pain and discomfort in the body. During a session, thin needles are placed in the skin for about an hour. Acupuncture has been shown to provide significant pain relief for some people.3
<>The presence of any acute nerve dysfunction should also prompt an immediate visit. These would include the inability to walk or inability to raise or lower your foot at the ankle. Also included would be the inability to raise the big toe upward or walk on your heels or stand on your toes. These might indicate an acute nerve injury or compression. Under certain circumstances, this may be an acute neurosurgical emergency.
<>Conventional treatments such as NSAIDs, heat and ice, and stretching will be enough for most people—but not everyone. “If you’ve exhausted various conservative treatment options and have been in chronic pain for several months, you may be a candidate for minimally invasive spine surgery,” says Koser. There’s no reason to suffer—and you may not have to consider traditional open spine surgery at all. Minimally invasive procedures use an incision of less than one inch and require little downtime. “The muscles are spared during the procedure and are gently spaced apart, rather than being cut or torn away during traditional open spine surgery,” Koser says.
<>Another way to cure back pain fast at home is to use muscle creams and patches. You may have seen these advertised as the sticky patches that extend across your back, and they are effective to a degree. Many different companies make these types of products, but the two most popular are Ben Gay and Icy Hot. The medication in the patch or cream works to “confuse” the nerve endings in your back muscles. By making them feel hot or cold, they are distracted from the pain of the muscle tissue. In addition, the heat from these patches goes a long way toward soothing the muscles that have been strained or sprained. Large patches are probably the most convenient back pain home remedy of this type, but the cream may work better if your muscles are strained higher up on the back, to the side, or over a large area. Here are some exercises that can help make back pain better.
<>While a PT can guide you through exercises to strengthen lower back muscles, you can take matters into your own hands by regularly stretching at home. For lower back pain relief, Strassberg says, a PT may recommend a few moves: hamstring stretch, piriformis stretch, and lower trunk rotation. Pelvic tilts and “clams” are other good targeted exercises. No luck? These are the surprising reasons your lower back pain treatment isn’t working.
<>“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.
<>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.
<>Several systemic reviews have found skeletal muscle relaxants effective for short-term symptomatic relief in acute and chronic low back pain.7,56,65,66 However, the incidence of drowsiness, dizziness, and other side effects is high.66 There is minimal evidence on the efficacy of the antispasticity drugs (dantrolene and baclofen) for low back pain.66
<>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.
<>This tutorial has been continuously, actively maintained and updated for 14 years now, staying consistent with professional guidelines and the best available science. The first edition was originally published in September 2004, after countless hours of research and writing while I spent a month taking care of a farm (and a beautiful pair of young puppies) in the Okanagan.
<>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.

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