<>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.
<>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.
<>Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Patient Platform Limited has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.
<>It is extremely difficult to alter the potentially disabling belief among the lay public that low back pain has a structural mechanical cause. An important reason for this is that this belief continues to be regularly reinforced by the conditions of care of a range of ‘hands-on’ providers, for whom idiosyncratic variations of that view are fundamental to their professional existence.”
<>No, the lower back pain isn't in your head. But what is in your head could be making it worse. "Fear, anxiety, and catastrophizing can amplify pain," says Mackey. "People often get swept up in thoughts like This will never get better." Because brain circuits that process pain overlap dramatically with circuits involved with emotions, panic can translate into actual pain. Cognitive-behavioral therapy helps you recognize and reframe negative thoughts. Deep breathing can help, too, as can simply shining a light on dark thoughts. "Start by accepting that you have pain," Mackey says. "Then say to yourself, It will get better."
<>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 McKenzie method45 uses clinical examination to separate patients with low back pain into subgroups (postural, dysfunction, and derangement) to determine appropriate treatment. The goal is symptom relief through individualized treatment by the patient at home. The McKenzie method is not exclusively extension exercises; it emphasizes patient education to decrease pain quickly, restore function, minimize the number of visits to the clinic, and prevent recurrences.45 Two systemic reviews have compared the McKenzie method with different conclusions.11,43 Clare et al11 concluded that McKenzie therapy resulted in decreased short-term (less than 3 months) pain and disability when compared with NSAIDs, educational booklet, back massage with back care advice, strength training with therapist supervision, and spinal mobilization. Machado et al43 concluded that the McKenzie method does not produce clinically worthwhile changes in pain and disability when compared with passive therapy and advice to stay active for acute LBP.
<>Stretch. Don't sit slumped in your desk chair all day. Get up every 20 minutes or so and stretch the other way. "Because most of us spend a lot of time bending forward in our jobs, it's important to stand up and stretch backward throughout the day," Reicherter says. Don't forget to also stretch your legs. Some people find relief from their back pain by doing a regular stretching routine, like yoga.
<>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.
<>Low back pain is one of the most common complaints on the planet. And you may wonder where to turn when you start experiencing some of those aches or twinges in the lower part of your back. Take heart. "In most cases, you won't need a specialist," says Dr. Robert Shmerling, a rheumatologist at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
<>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.]
<>This tutorial is great for people who like to understand their problems. Its dorky, quirky thoroughness is unlike anything the big medical sites offer, and the lack of a miracle cure secret is rare among independent sources. My goal is “just” to empower you with education (without boring you to tears). When you’re done, you’ll know more about your back than most doctors. (Not that this is saying much!16) I’ve spent years compiling this information from hard study, professional experience, and lots of your stories and feedback. I update the tutorial regularly.
<>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.
<>Medication: If back pain keeps you from normal daily activities, your doctor can help by recommending or prescribing pain medications. Over-the-counter painkillers such as Tylenol, aspirin, or NSAIDs -- such as ketoprofen, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), and naproxen (Aleve) -- can be helpful. For severe pain, your doctor may prescribe prescription strength anti-inflammatories/pain medicines or may prefer to prescribe a short-term combination of opioid (narcotic) and acetaminophen medications such as Vicodin or Percocet. Some doctors also prescribe muscle relaxants. But beware, some of these medications have a direct effect on the brain and often cause drowsiness.
<>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.
<>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.
<>Shingles (herpes zoster) is an acute infection of the nerves that supply sensation to the skin, generally at one or several spinal levels and on one side of the body (right or left). Patients with shingles usually have had chickenpox earlier in life. The herpes virus that causes chickenpox is believed to exist in a dormant state within the spinal nerve roots long after the chickenpox resolves. In people with shingles, this virus reactivates to cause infection along the sensory nerve, leading to nerve pain and usually an outbreak of shingles (tiny blisters on the same side of the body and at the same nerve level). The back pain in patients with shingles of the lumbar area can precede the skin rash by days. Successive crops of tiny blisters can appear for several days and clear with crusty inflammation in one to two weeks. Patients occasionally are left with a more chronic nerve pain (postherpetic neuralgia). Treatment can involve symptomatic relief with lotions, such as calamine, or medications, such as acyclovir (Zovirax), for the infection and pregabalin (Lyrica) or lidocaine (Lidoderm) patches for the pain.
<>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.
<>Doctors lack the skills and knowledge needed to care for most common aches, pains, and injury problems, especially the chronic cases, and even the best are poor substitutes for physical therapists. This has been proven in a number of studies, like Stockard et al, who found that 82% of medical graduates “failed to demonstrate basic competency in musculoskeletal medicine.” It’s just not their thing, and people with joint or meaty body pain should take their family doctor’s advice with a grain of salt. See The Medical Blind Spot for Aches, Pains & Injuries: Most physicians are unqualified to care for many common pain and injury problems, especially the more stubborn and tricky ones.
<>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.
<>This traditional treatment scores well in research for its pain-relieving properties—and you can add lower back pain relief to the list. In a review published in the journal Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, researchers concluded that for chronic low back pain, acupuncture alone or in conjunction with other treatments could provide short-term improvements in pain and function compared to no treatment at all.
<>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.
<>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!]
<>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.
<>Can inversion therapy help with back pain? Inversion therapy, where a person is held upside down for several minutes, is an alternative therapy for back pain. They may use gravity boots or an inversion table or chair to reduce the pressure on their spine. Evidence for the effectiveness of this technique is mixed. Learn more about the benefits and risks here. Read now
<>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.
<>A meta-analysis found traction no more effective than placebo, sham, or no treatment for any outcome for low back pain with or without sciatica.12 The results consistently indicated that continuous or intermittent traction as a single treatment for low back pain is not effective.12 Side effects included worsening of signs and symptoms and increased subsequent surgery; however, the reports are inconsistent.10
<>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.
<>It may be tempting to quit exercising when you're suffering from back pain, but it's essential to keep yourself moving. Pilates is one great option. In a 2014 European Journal of Physical Rehabilitation Medicine study, researchers found an improvement in pain, disability, and psychological health in chronic low-back pain patients who took five hourlong Pilates classes a week for six months. Meanwhile, people who remained inactive experienced further worsening of their pain. Similarly, a Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise study revealed that taking either Pilates or a general exercise class twice a week for six weeks both improved pain and quality of life.
<>Bleeding in the pelvis is rare without significant trauma and is usually seen in patients who are taking blood-thinning medications, such as warfarin (Coumadin). In these patients, a rapid-onset sciatica pain can be a sign of bleeding in the back of the pelvis and abdomen that is compressing the spinal nerves as they exit to the lower extremities. Infection of the pelvis is infrequent but can be a complication of conditions such as diverticulosis, Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, pelvic inflammatory disease with infection of the Fallopian tubes or uterus, and even appendicitis. Pelvic infection is a serious complication of these conditions and is often associated with fever, lowering of blood pressure, and a life-threatening state.
<>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
<>Few people need surgery for back pain. If you have unrelenting pain associated with radiating leg pain or progressive muscle weakness caused by nerve compression, you might benefit from surgery. Otherwise, surgery usually is reserved for pain related to structural problems, such as narrowing of the spine (spinal stenosis) or a herniated disk, that hasn't responded to other therapy.
<>Thirty-five randomized controlled trials did not allow firm conclusions for the effectiveness of acupuncture for acute low back pain.25 For chronic low back pain, acupuncture is more effective for pain relief and functional improvement than no treatment or sham treatment in the short term only. Acupuncture is not more effective than other conventional or alternative treatments.25
<>As has been highlighted by research presented at the national meeting of the American College of Rheumatology, a very important aspect of the individual evaluation is the patient's own understanding and perception of their particular situation. British researchers found that those who believed that their symptoms had serious consequences on their lives and that they had, or treatments had, little control over their symptoms were more likely to have a poor outcome. This research points out to physicians the importance of addressing the concerns and perceptions that patients have about their condition during the initial evaluations.
<>Start in a high plank position with shoulders directly over wrists and tops of feet resting on a stability ball. Your body should form a straight line from head to ankles. Without bending your knees, roll the ball toward your chest by raising your hips as high as you can toward the ceiling. Pause, then lower hips as you roll the ball back to the starting position. Perform 15 reps.
<>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.
<>Moderate-quality evidence shows that non-benzodiazepine muscle relaxants (e.g., cyclobenzaprine [Flexeril], tizanidine [Zanaflex], metaxalone [Skelaxin]) are beneficial in the treatment of acute low back pain. Most pain reduction from these medications occurs in the first seven to 14 days, but the benefit may continue for up to four weeks.19,20 However, nonbenzodiazepine muscle relaxants do not affect disability status.19,20 Very low-quality evidence shows that a short course (up to five days) of oral diazepam (Valium) may also be beneficial for pain relief.19 Because all muscle relaxants have adverse effects, such as drowsiness, dizziness, and nausea, they should be used cautiously. Diazepam and carisoprodol (Soma) use should be brief to decrease the risk of abuse and dependence. There is also moderate-quality evidence that muscle relaxants combined with NSAIDs may have additive benefit for reducing pain.19
<>Gentle stretches, walking, and periodically standing up at your desk can help stabilize your spine and prevent muscle imbalances. And despite how hard it is to imagine doing Downward-Facing Dog with a bad back, yoga can work in your favor, too. A 2013 review of studies found strong evidence it can help beat lower back pain. Any type works; one to consider is the restorative viniyoga style.
<>2017 — Major upgrade: The section has been re-written and expanded significantly, with a key change in position. After reviewing the same scientific papers previously cited more carefully, I decided that they were much less promising than I originally thought. The section has flip-flopped from optimism to pessimism about nerve blocks without a single change in what’s actually cited, just a change in the level of diligence in interpreting the science. [Section: Diagnostic numbing of facet joints.]
<>"Having excess weight pulling on your back all day (except when you're lying down) is just bad news for your back," says Lauri Grossman, DT, a licensed chiropractor in private practice in New York City. "Often times, when people who wrestle with back pain for a lifetime lose a few pounds, they find that the pain that they've taken a million medications for and a million vitamins for just goes away." If you're having trouble shedding extra pounds, consider consulting with a registered dietitian or personal trainer.
<>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).
<>Numerous powerlifters over the years have come back following ‘career-ending injuries’ to set all-time personal records. Donnie Thompson is the only man to total 3,000 lbs (1,265 lb squat, 950 lb bench, 785 lb deadlift). Many people don’t know this, but several years back Donnie suffered a horrendous back injury and herniated three discs. He could barely walk, but he got out of bed and rehabbed himself every day. Within three months he was back to heavy squatting and setting personal records. Got that? Setting personal records three months following an injury that herniated 3 discs!
<>Acupuncture: Acupuncture may provide even more relief than painkillers, according to one 2013 review. In 11 studies of more than 1,100 people, this Chinese medicine staple improved symptoms of lower back pain better than simulated treatments and, yes, in some cases, NSAIDs. The needles appear to change the way your nerves react and may reduce inflammation around joints (which is only one of the therapy's benefits), says DeStefano.
<>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
<>Nerve root syndromes are those that produce symptoms of nerve impingement (a nerve is directly irritated), often due to a herniation (or bulging) of the disc between the lower back bones. Sciatica is an example of nerve root impingement. Impingement pain tends to be sharp, affecting a specific area, and associated with numbness in the area of the leg that the affected nerve supplies.
<>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.
<>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.
<>Patient information articles published in both the Journal of North American Spine Society and the Journal of the American Medical Association found evidence that spinal manipulations were safe, effective, drugless forms of professional treatment for both acute (short-term or sudden) and chronic low back problems in adults. (2, 3) Egoscue, another type of postural therapy protocol that focuses on fixing musculoskeletal misalignments, may also be able to help reduce and prevent back pain.
<>Learning to keep your cool is as good for your back as it is for your mental health. When you're anxious, your body sets off the "fight or flight" response, which involves tensing your muscles so you're ready to spring into action. One European study revealed that people prone to negative thoughts and anxiety are more likely to suffer from back pain. Get calm now with these stress-busting solutions.
<>Most people — and most health care professionals — believe that back pain is usually caused mainly by structural problems, either injury or degeneration of the spine. This idea is not supported by the scientific evidence.25 Indeed, just the opposite is more the case: “The evidence that tissue pathology does not explain chronic pain is overwhelming (e.g., in back pain, neck pain, and knee osteoarthritis).”26
<>Epidural steroid injections are most commonly used in situations of radicular pain, which is a radiating pain that is transmitted away from the spine by an irritated spinal nerve. Irritation of a spinal nerve in the low back (lumbar radiculopathy) causes pain that goes down the leg. Epidural injections are also used to treat nerve compression in the neck (cervical spine), referred to as cervical radiculopathy, which causes pain.
<>Pain is a leading cause of insomnia—difficulty with falling asleep and/or staying asleep. Approximately two-thirds of people with chronic back pain suffer from some type of sleep disorder. Paradoxically, inadequate sleep can make your back pain worse. This vicious cycle makes it ineffective to treat just the pain. If you have sleep problems, you need to get the sleep problems addressed too.
<>Bleeding in the pelvis is rare without significant trauma and is usually seen in patients who are taking blood-thinning medications, such as warfarin (Coumadin). In these patients, a rapid-onset sciatica pain can be a sign of bleeding in the back of the pelvis and abdomen that is compressing the spinal nerves as they exit to the lower extremities. Infection of the pelvis is infrequent but can be a complication of conditions such as diverticulosis, Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, pelvic inflammatory disease with infection of the Fallopian tubes or uterus, and even appendicitis. Pelvic infection is a serious complication of these conditions and is often associated with fever, lowering of blood pressure, and a life-threatening state.
<>Regular applications of ice to the painful areas on your back may help reduce pain and inflammation from an injury. Try this several times a day for up to 20 minutes each time. Wrap the ice pack in a thin towel to protect your skin. After a few days, switch to heat. Apply a heating pad or warm pack to help relax your muscles and increase blood flowing to the affected area. You also can try warm baths to help with relaxation. To avoid burns and tissue damage, never sleep on a heating pad.

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