<>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.
<>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.
<>Try acupuncture. Research suggests that acupuncture can help reduce chronic low back pain. One recent review showed that actual acupuncture was more effective than simulated acupuncture or no treatment in reducing pain. It's not entirely known how acupuncture regulates pain; however, one theory suggests acupuncture helps trigger the release of pain reducing chemicals in the body (like endorphins and natural opioids). Back pain is one of the most common reasons patients first try acupuncture and many find sustained relief.
<>Lumbar strain (acute, chronic): A lumbar strain is a stretch injury to the ligaments, tendons, and/or muscles of the low back. The stretching incident results in microscopic tears of varying degrees in these tissues. Lumbar strain is considered one of the most common causes of low back pain. The injury can occur because of overuse, improper use, or trauma. Soft-tissue injury is commonly classified as "acute" if it has been present for days to weeks. If the strain lasts longer than three months, it is referred to as "chronic." Lumbar strain most often occurs in people in their 40s, but it can happen at any age. The condition is characterized by localized discomfort in the low back area with onset after an event that mechanically stressed the lumbar tissues. The severity of the injury ranges from mild to severe, depending on the degree of strain and resulting spasm of the muscles of the low back. The diagnosis of lumbar strain is based on the history of injury, the location of the pain, and exclusion of nervous system injury. Usually, X-ray testing is only helpful to exclude bone abnormalities.
<>2013 — New section: An overdue upgrade! This way pain and fear power each other is now explained much more clearly and thoroughly than before. It’s noteworthy that, with this update, Dr. Lorimer Moseley’s valuable perspective on back pain is now fairly well-represented in this book. [Section: Pain and fear, together at last: an even simpler vicious cycle.]
<>I like to kick off a topic with an example of a terrible website about it, just for the chuckle and a teachable moment. ThePain.net is one of the worst I’ve seen: a large, stale, ugly thing by Pekka Palin, MD. There are hours of terrible reading there! Dozens of blandly composed, shallow, rambling, and frequently irrational mini-articles on every imaginable pain subject, all 100% unreferenced, laid out in huge blocks of text without a subheading for many screens (a typographic travesty). There’s soooo much badness, but I really got a chuckle out of this perfectly pointless phrase: “The most common term used for general, temporary low back pain is lumbago.” Now “lumbago” means “back pain” (see the definition of lumbago on Wikipedia), so Dr. Obvious has helpfully explained that the cause of back pain is, er, back pain. The Internet, at your service!
<>For a 2006 report published in Rheumatology, investigators analyzed the available research on the use of balneotherapy in treatment of low back pain. Looking at five clinical trials, the report's authors found "encouraging evidence" suggesting that balneotherapy may be effective for treating patients with low back pain. Noting that supporting data are scarce, the authors call for larger-scale trials on balneotherapy and low back pain.
<>Pregnancy commonly leads to low back pain by mechanically stressing the lumbar spine (changing the normal lumbar curvature) and by the positioning of the baby inside of the abdomen. Additionally, the effects of the female hormone estrogen and the ligament-loosening hormone relaxin may contribute to loosening of the ligaments and structures of the back. Pelvic-tilt exercises and stretches are often recommended for relieving this pain. Women are also recommended to maintain physical conditioning during pregnancy according to their doctors' advice. Natural labor can also cause low back pain.
<>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.
<>This movement is helpful to stretch tight abdominal muscles and the lower back. Start by lying on your stomach with your legs extended and with palms planted on either side of your head with your forearms and elbows flat on the ground. Slowly, push your body upwards, so your weight is resting on your forearms. Be sure to keep your hips on the ground. Once you reach a comfortable position that gently stretches your abdominal muscles and lower back, hold for 10 seconds. Slowly return to starting position and repeat five times. If you have more flexibility in your lower back, try straightening your arms.
<>Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.
<>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.
<>A recent double-blind randomized placebo-controlled study of 546 patients with acute low back pain (less than 4 weeks) with radiculopathy compared LLLT and nimesulide to nimesulide alone to sham LLLT. Treatment with LLLT and nimesulide improved movement, with more significant reduction in pain intensity and disability and with improvement in quality of life, compared with patients treated only with drugs or placebo LLLT.38
<>Surgery for nonspecific back pain is a last resort as spinal problems are unlikely to be the cause of chronic non-specific back pain in the absence of loss of movement and sensation or other findings such as loss of muscle bulk and reflexes. In cases where the pain spreads into the extremities and imaging studies reveal compression or damage to nerve tissue in the spine, surgery remains a consideration if loss of function as well as pain continues after a trial of conservative treatment with medications and activity modification including a home exercise program and physical therapy.
<>A 2007 Cochrane review of opioids for chronic low back pain found that tramadol was more effective than placebo for pain relief and improving function.16 The 2 most common side effects of tramadol were headaches and nausea. One trial comparing opioids to naproxen found that opioids were significantly better for relieving pain but not improving function. Despite the frequent use of opioids for long-term management of chronic LBP, there are few high-quality trials assessing efficacy. The benefits of opioids for chronic LBP remain questionable. There is no evidence that sustained-release opioid formulations are superior to immediate-release formulations for low back pain. Long-acting opioids did not differ in head-to-head trials.9 Opioids are banned by the World Anti-doping Association.70
<>Other back pain remedies that work fast at home is over-the-counter pain medications. Tylenol, or acetaminophen, is really not recommended for muscular strains and sprains. If you’ve hurt your back, the best back pain remedy is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication, or NSAID. These are popularly known as Advil (ibuprofen) and Aleve (naproxen). Once again, these medications help to stem the tide of the blood flow to the area to reduce pain. By keeping inflammation low, your pain is decreased, and you are better able to move. Be careful to follow the bottle’s instructions, though, because these medications can cause stomach ulcers.
<>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.
<>Muscle relaxants: Muscle spasm is not universally accepted as a cause of back pain, and most relaxants have no effect on muscle spasm. Muscle relaxants may be more effective than a placebo (sugar pill) in treating back pain, but none has been shown to be superior to NSAIDs. No additional benefit is gained by using muscle relaxants in combination with NSAIDs over using NSAIDs alone. Muscle relaxants cause drowsiness in up to 30% of people taking them. Their use is not routinely recommended.
<>The discs are pads that serve as "cushions" between the individual vertebral bodies. They help to minimize the impact of stress forces on the spinal column. Each disc is designed like a jelly donut with a central, softer component (nucleus pulposus) and a surrounding, firm outer ring (annulus fibrosus). The central portion of the disc is capable of rupturing (herniating as in a herniated disc) through the outer ring, causing irritation of adjacent nervous tissue and sciatica as described below. Ligaments are strong fibrous soft tissues that firmly attach bones to bones. Ligaments attach each of the vertebrae to each other and surround each of the discs.
<>Steroids: Oral steroids can be of benefit in treating acute sciatica. Steroid injections into the epidural space have not been found to decrease duration of symptoms or improve function and are not currently recommended for the treatment of acute back pain without sciatica. Benefit in chronic pain with sciatica remains controversial. Injections into the posterior joint spaces, the facets, may be beneficial for people with pain associated with sciatica. Trigger point injections have not been proven helpful in acute back pain. Trigger point injections with a steroid and a local anesthetic may be helpful in chronic back pain. Their use remains controversial.
<>Even as you practice patience, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) such as ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) or naproxen (Aleve) can help ease the pain you're pushing through. The research behind medicine guidelines for lower back pain finds that these may give slightly better relief than acetaminophen (Tylenol). Over long periods, NSAIDs can cause gastrointestinal problems, so don't take them for more than 10 days without consulting your doctor.
<>Cauda equina syndrome is a medical emergency whereby the spinal cord is directly compressed. Disc material expands into the spinal canal, which compresses the nerves. A person would experience pain, possible loss of sensation, and bowel or bladder dysfunction. This could include inability to control urination causing incontinence or the inability to begin urination.
<>To understand various causes of low back pain, it is important to appreciate the normal design (anatomy) of the tissues of this area of the body. Important structures of the low back that can be related to symptoms in this region include the bony lumbar spine (vertebrae, singular = vertebra), discs between the vertebrae, ligaments around the spine and discs, spinal cord and nerves, muscles of the low back, internal organs of the pelvis and abdomen, and the skin covering the lumbar area.
<>Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) or naproxen sodium (Aleve), might relieve acute back pain. Take these medications only as directed by your doctor. Overuse can cause serious side effects. If OTC pain relievers don't relieve your pain, your doctor might suggest prescription NSAIDs.
<>An ancient mind-body practice, meditation has been found to increase pain tolerance and promote management of chronic pain in a number of small studies. In addition, a number of preliminary studies have focused specifically on the use of meditation in the management of low back pain. A 2008 study published in Pain, for example, found that an eight-week meditation program led to an improvement of pain acceptance and physical function in patients with chronic low back pain. The study included 37 older adults, with members meditating an average of 4.3 days a week for an average of 31.6 minutes a day.
<>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
<>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
<>Physical Therapy. Physical therapists often recommend the McKenzie method or spine stabilization exercises for the treatment of low back pain. The McKenzie method is described at http://www.mckenziemdt.org/approach.cfm, and a video demonstration is available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wBOp-ugJbTQ. The McKenzie method has been shown to be slightly more effective than other common low back pain treatments; however, the difference is not clinically significant,26,27 and evidence on its effect on disability is conflicting.26,27 There also do not appear to be good long-term benefits with the McKenzie method, other than decreased need for health care services.27 Spine stabilization exercises have been shown to decrease pain, disability, and risk of recurrence after a first episode of back pain.28
<>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.
<>After reviewing data regarding various treatments for lower back pain, the Agency for Health Care Research and Quality concluded that those suffering from back pain should first try conservative/natural treatments and then consider other options for lower back pain relief if pain persists. Oftentimes low back pain sufferers can find relief naturally by making changes to their lifestyles (including sleep, physical activity, stress and body weight) before choosing more intensive care options.
<>For example, ginger is a natural anti-inflammatory agent. It may help reduce inflammation associated with back pain, especially helpful after strenuous activities. Consider simmering fresh ginger root slices in hot water for about 30 minutes to prepare a spicy but soothing cup of tea. Capsaicin has also shown some promise for reducing pain. It’s the active ingredient in chili peppers. You can find it in both topical cream and oral supplement forms.
<>When you have back pain, the best thing to do is rest until the pain subsides, right? Not necessarily. Too much rest can worsen certain types of back pain and decrease muscle strength — and strengthening and stretching the muscles may actually reduce or eliminate many types of back pain. Instead, start with gentle stretches and experiment to see how you can get moving without pain. Try going out for a slow, easy walk, and pick up the pace when you can. Remember, it's best to discuss your current fitness routine and any changes to it with your doctor to avoid aggravating your condition.
<>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.
<>There are a number of medications that can relieve back pain. Over-the-counter pain relievers, muscle relaxants, topical pain relievers and narcotics are all extremely effective in increasing your comfort. In addition, cortisone injections can decrease inflammation around the nerve roots and low doses of antidepressants can relieve certain types of chronic back pain.
<>Clearly, stretching works as an effective back pain treatment (and offers a more natural pain relief solution than other common pain interventions, like prescription painkillers or surgery). But why is stretching so effective? Which back pain stretches should you be doing to maximize results? And what are the best ways to incorporate back pain exercises into your daily routine to strengthen your core and keep pain at bay?
<>A 2007 Cochrane review of opioids for chronic low back pain found that tramadol was more effective than placebo for pain relief and improving function.16 The 2 most common side effects of tramadol were headaches and nausea. One trial comparing opioids to naproxen found that opioids were significantly better for relieving pain but not improving function. Despite the frequent use of opioids for long-term management of chronic LBP, there are few high-quality trials assessing efficacy. The benefits of opioids for chronic LBP remain questionable. There is no evidence that sustained-release opioid formulations are superior to immediate-release formulations for low back pain. Long-acting opioids did not differ in head-to-head trials.9 Opioids are banned by the World Anti-doping Association.70
<>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.”
<>Although most cases of back pain are “uncomplicated” and should be able to heal with the treatments mentioned above, sometimes in severe cases other interventions are necessary. Speak to your doctor if you experience lower back pain that does not get better in a few days or weeks. If back pain starts suddenly, look out for other symptoms that may point to a more serious condition, such as a fever, chills, dizziness, numbness or unexplained weight loss.
<>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
<>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
<>These powerful painkillers may not be all that: In a study published in JAMA, fast-acting opioids like morphine and oxycodone were no better than non-opioid medications (like Tylenol or an NSAID) in improving function in moderate to severe back pain. Talk to your doctor about the option that’s best for you. Don’t miss these 24 things pain doctors won’t tell you.
<>Get some exercise. You may be tempted to stay in bed when your back acts up, but exercise and activity can actually help you heal faster and reduce pain. A study of 240 men and women found that regular exercise reduced pain by 28 percent and disability by 36 percent. Low impact, moderate intensity exercise is the safest option. Avoid movements that trigger pain or require excessive jumping or squatting, which can exacerbate injuries. Take two to three minutes at the end of your workout to stretch your back thoroughly. Lie flat on your back and hug your knees to release any tension that developed during your workout.
<>Opioids are commonly prescribed for patients with severe acute low back pain; however, there is little evidence of benefit. Three studies showed no difference in pain relief or time to return to work between oral opioids and NSAIDs or acetaminophen, and there is risk of harmful dose escalation over time with opioids, especially with purer formulations.16,21 Although epidural steroid injections are not beneficial for isolated acute low back pain, they may be helpful for radicular pain that does not respond to two to six weeks of noninvasive treatment. Transforaminal injections appear to have more favorable short- and long-term benefit than traditional interlaminar injections.22
<>Acute low back pain can be defined as six to 12 weeks of pain between the costal angles and gluteal folds that may radiate down one or both legs (sciatica). Acute low back pain is often nonspecific and therefore cannot be attributed to a definite cause. However, possible causes of acute low back pain (e.g., infection, tumor, osteoporosis, fracture, inflammatory arthritis) need to be considered based on the patient's history and physical examination. Table 1 presents the differential diagnosis of acute low back pain.5,6
<>“I went in not knowing what the problem was, I hurt and I figured I was out of place. I was seeing another chiropractor but they were only adjusting me and there was no improvement - I was worsening. I went to see Dr. Riley and in one visit he found that I was weak in my left glute and my body was overcompensating and causing me pain. It took four visits working on strengthening that side and I'm pain free.”
<>Topical treatments: One potential concern with dietary supplements is that some may interfere with medications you’ve been prescribed to treat back pain or other health conditions. For this reason, Grossman suggests topical treatments: “Gels and creams can be very helpful and won't interfere with supplements or medications,” she explains. “They're generally inexpensive, too.”
<>Get some exercise. You may be tempted to stay in bed when your back acts up, but exercise and activity can actually help you heal faster and reduce pain. A study of 240 men and women found that regular exercise reduced pain by 28 percent and disability by 36 percent. Low impact, moderate intensity exercise is the safest option. Avoid movements that trigger pain or require excessive jumping or squatting, which can exacerbate injuries. Take two to three minutes at the end of your workout to stretch your back thoroughly. Lie flat on your back and hug your knees to release any tension that developed during your workout.
<>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.
<>This movement is helpful to stretch tight abdominal muscles and the lower back. Start by lying on your stomach with your legs extended and with palms planted on either side of your head with your forearms and elbows flat on the ground. Slowly, push your body upwards, so your weight is resting on your forearms. Be sure to keep your hips on the ground. Once you reach a comfortable position that gently stretches your abdominal muscles and lower back, hold for 10 seconds. Slowly return to starting position and repeat five times. If you have more flexibility in your lower back, try straightening your arms.
<>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.
<>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.]
<>Physical therapists can teach you how to sit, stand, and move in a way that keeps your spine in proper alignment and alleviates strain on your back. They also can teach you specialized exercises that strengthen the core muscles that support your back. A strong core is one of the best ways to prevent more back pain in the future. Studies show that when you increase your strength, flexibility, and endurance, back pain decreases -- but it takes time.

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