<>Welcome to one of the Internet’s saner sources of information about chronic low back pain.[NIH] This is a book-length tutorial, a guide to a controversial subject for both patients and professionals. It is not a sales pitch for a miracle cure system. It’s heavily referenced, but the tone is often light, like this footnote about being “shot by the witch.”1 I will offer some surprising ideas — underestimated factors in low back pain — but I won’t claim that all back pain comes from a single cause or cure. It’s just a thorough tour of the topic, the myths and misconceptions, and the best (and worst) low back pain treatment ideas available.
<>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
<>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.]
<>“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.
<>Low back pain can be caused by tumors, either benign or malignant, that originate in the bone of the spine or pelvis and spinal cord (primary tumors) and those which originate elsewhere and spread to these areas (metastatic tumors). Symptoms range from localized pain to radiating severe pain and loss of nerve and muscle function (even incontinence of urine and stool) depending on whether or not the tumors affect the nervous tissue. Tumors of these areas are detected using imaging tests, such as plain X-rays, nuclear bone scanning, and CAT and MRI scanning.
<>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.
<>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.
<>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
<>Back pain is a health concern for most people in the United States at some point in their lives and one of the most common reasons people miss work or visit the doctor. More than 80 percent of Americans will experience low back pain, and this health problem costs the United States over $100 billion each year, most of which is a result of lost wages. 
<>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
<>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.
<>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.
<>Sports that have higher rates of back pain include gymnastics, diving, weight lifting, golf, American football, and rowing.61 In gymnastics, the incidence of back injuries is 11%. In football linemen, it may be as high as 50%.18 Ninety percent of all injuries of professional golfers involve the neck or back.19 Injury rates for 15- and 16-year-old girls in gymnastics, dance, or gym training are higher than the general population, while cross-country skiing and aerobics are associated with a lower prevalence of low back pain.4 For boys, volleyball, gymnastics, weight lifting, downhill skiing, and snowboarding are associated with higher prevalence of low back pain, while cross-country skiing and aerobics show a lower prevalence.
<>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.
<>After your initial visit for back pain, it is recommended that you follow your doctor's instructions as carefully as possible. This includes taking the medications and performing activities as directed. Back pain will, in all likelihood, improve within several days. Do not be discouraged if you don't achieve immediate improvement. Nearly everyone improves within a month of onset of the pain.
<>2009 — New section: Today I found a way to say some simple things about the power of self-treatment that have been “on the tip of my tongue” for years now. It all evolved from writing about an important bit of research, showing that manual therapists cannot (reliably) diagnose trigger points. [Section: Limitations of trigger point therapy, and how to take advantage of them.]
<>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.]
<>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
<>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.
<>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
<>Lie on your back with knees bent and just your heels on the floor. Push your heels into the floor, squeeze your buttocks, and lift your hips off the floor until shoulders, hips, and knees are in a straight line. Hold about 6 seconds, and then slowly lower hips to the floor and rest for 10 seconds. Repeat 8 to 12 times. Avoid arching your lower back as your hips move upward. Avoid overarching by tightening your abdominal muscles prior and throughout the lift.
<>The diagnosis of low back pain involves a review of the history of the illness and underlying medical conditions as well as a physical examination. It is essential that a complete story of the back pain be reviewed including injury history, aggravating and alleviating conditions, associated symptoms (fever, numbness, tingling, incontinence, etc.), as well as the duration and progression of symptoms. Aside from routine abdomen and extremity evaluations, rectal and pelvic examinations may eventually be required as well. Further tests for diagnosis of low back pain can be required including blood and urine tests, plain film X-ray tests, CAT scanning, MRI scanning, bone scanning, and tests of the nerves such as electromyograms (EMG) and nerve conduction velocities (NCV).
<>“The Pain Perplex,” a chapter in the book Complications, by Atul Gawande. Gawande’s entire book is worth reading, but his chapter on pain physiology is certainly the best summary of the subject I have ever read, and a terrific reminder that good writing for a general audience can be just as illuminating for professionals. Anyone struggling with a pain problem should buy the book for this chapter alone, though you are likely to enjoy the whole thing. Much of the chapter focuses on one of the most interesting stories of low back pain I’ve read, and it is a responsible and rational account — although Gawande, like most doctors, seems to be unaware of the clinical significance, or even existence, of myofascial trigger points.
<>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.
<>Sports that have higher rates of back pain include gymnastics, diving, weight lifting, golf, American football, and rowing.61 In gymnastics, the incidence of back injuries is 11%. In football linemen, it may be as high as 50%.18 Ninety percent of all injuries of professional golfers involve the neck or back.19 Injury rates for 15- and 16-year-old girls in gymnastics, dance, or gym training are higher than the general population, while cross-country skiing and aerobics are associated with a lower prevalence of low back pain.4 For boys, volleyball, gymnastics, weight lifting, downhill skiing, and snowboarding are associated with higher prevalence of low back pain, while cross-country skiing and aerobics show a lower prevalence.
<>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
<>Laboratory tests such as complete blood count with differential, erythrocyte sedimentation rate, and C-reactive protein level may be beneficial if infection or bone marrow neoplasm is suspected. These tests may be most sensitive in cases of spinal infection because lack of fever and a normal complete blood count are common in patients with spinal infection.15 Because laboratory testing lacks specificity, MRI with and without contrast media and, in many cases, biopsy are essential for accurate diagnosis.15
<>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.
<>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.
<>A common culprit in lower back pain due to sitting are tight or shortened hip flexors, which connect to your iliopsoas muscle, and often result in weak or compromised lower back and glute muscles. The following effective static stretches will help stretch out those muscles and deliver lower back relief. Regular practice of these stretches will also aid in bettering your posture long term.
<>2009 — New section: Today I found a way to say some simple things about the power of self-treatment that have been “on the tip of my tongue” for years now. It all evolved from writing about an important bit of research, showing that manual therapists cannot (reliably) diagnose trigger points. [Section: Limitations of trigger point therapy, and how to take advantage of them.]
<>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.
<>While it’s true that some lower back pain just cannot be fixed, it’s also true that many “incurable” cases do turn out to be surprisingly treatable. People who believed for years that their pain was invincible have found relief. Not always, and often not completely — but sometimes any relief is far better than nothing. How can extremely stubborn pain finally ease up? Simple: because many cases weren’t truly stubborn to begin with, despite all appearances. So many health professionals are poorly prepared to treat low back pain that patients can easily go for months or even years without once getting good care and advice. When they finally get it, it’s hardly surprising that some patients finally get some relief from their pain.
<>The available science includes a 2011 study published in Arthritis Care & Research, which found that a 10-week tai chi program reduced pain and improved functioning in people with long-term low back pain symptoms. The study involved 160 adults with chronic low back pain, half of whom participated in 40-minute-long tai chi sessions 18 times over the 10-week period.

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