<>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.
<>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.
<>Cold and heat therapies. It's best to use cold compresses or an ice pack, not heat, immediately following a back injury, since this can alleviate pain by numbing the area and prevent or reduce swelling. About 48 hours after the onset of back pain, though, applying heating pads or a hot-water bottle to your back may be helpful. The warmth soothes and relaxes aching muscles and increases blood flow, which helps the healing process. Keep in mind that heat therapy is only helpful for the first week.
<>Degenerative bone and joint conditions: As we age, the water and protein content of the body's cartilage changes. This change results in weaker, thinner, and more fragile cartilage. Because both the discs and the joints that stack the vertebrae (facet joints) are partly composed of cartilage, these areas are subject to wear and tear over time (degenerative changes). Degeneration of the disc is called spondylosis. Spondylosis can be noted on X-rays of the spine as a narrowing of the normal "disc space" between the vertebrae. It is the deterioration of the disc tissue that predisposes the disc to herniation and localized lumbar pain ("lumbago") in older patients. Degenerative arthritis (osteoarthritis) of the facet joints is also a cause of localized lumbar pain that can be detected with plain X-ray testing. These causes of degenerative back pain are usually treated conservatively with intermittent heat, rest, rehabilitative exercises, and medications to relieve pain, muscle spasm, and inflammation.
<>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.
<>A 2008 study published in the journal Spine found "strong evidence that acupuncture can be a useful supplement to other forms of conventional therapy" for low back pain. After analyzing 23 clinical trials with a total of 6,359 patients, the study authors also found "moderate evidence that acupuncture is more effective than no treatment" in relief of back pain.
<>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.
<>A physical therapist will teach you stretches to manage your back pain, as well as exercises to correct any imbalances that might have brought on pain in the first place. Depending on the causes and severity of your back pain, your PT may also employ other treatment techniques, such as ultrasound, electrical stimulation, and active release therapy.
<>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.
<>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 had suffered from undiagnosed and seemingly untreatable low back pain since late August last year. Three physiotherapists, my GP, two RMTs, and my generally excellent personal trainer failed to help me make any progress. At my last visit to my GP in late December, he maintained his insistence that I just needed to loosen up my hamstrings! The systematic approach you took to reviewing all the supposed cures and providing a clear analysis of each and no doubt saved me thousands of dollars and months of frustration. That gave me the focus to work on trigger points known to cause LBP (with the help of some additional books and a great TP therapy app for my phone). My back pain isn’t totally gone, but I’m 95% there and I’ve got a handle on it.
<>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
<>A great exercise for the lower tummy muscles is shown in the image below. It is extremely gentle and also very effective. Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Breathe in and as you breathe out bring one knee in towards your chest and as you breathe in return the foot to the floor. Repeat this exercise six to eight times on each leg.
<>Spines haven’t changed in the last century,21 and yet modern civilization suffers from a great plague of low back pain.2223 Yet the real causes of most back pain are obscured by medical mythology and misunderstanding.24 Before I discuss what does cause most low back pain, it’s important to talk about what does not cause it. In this section, I will challenge the mythology in just a few paragraphs, supported by over thirty references to the best scientific information available — references you can check for yourself. This is quite different than most sources of patient-focused low back pain information, which tend to avoid discussing the evidence.
<>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.”
<>A pinched nerve causes pain, numbness, or tingling in the affected area due to pressure on a nerve. Caral tunnel and sciatica are two examples of conditions caused by a pinched nerve. A pinched nerve is diagnosed by taking a patient history and performing a physical examination. Electromyography may be performed. Treatment for a pinched nerve depends on the underlying cause.
<>Dr. Stieber strongly believes that a personalized treatment approach delivers optimal relief and a superior patient experience. As such, your back pain treatment regimen will be tailored based on the severity, duration and underlying cause of your symptoms. For most of our NYC patients, the solution will involve a blend of approaches, including medication, physical therapy and, in rare cases, surgery.
<>Well, at least there’s that! But most of what CR published was horrifyingly naive and misleading. I scanned this issue in a grocery store lineup and was rolling my eyes within seconds. And then fuming: it seems like the flood of misinformation about back pain is infinite! I’ve been actively debunking back pain myths for about 15 years now, and the need for it has barely changed in all that time. So-called information like this, reaching a massive audience, seriously exacerbates the problem.
<>Dr. Richard Deyo, one of the great myth busters of low back pain research, believes that “low back pain is second to upper respiratory problems as a symptom-related reason for visits to a physician” — only the common cold causes more complaints. Hart et al puts low back pain in fifth place (lower because Hart oddly excludes chronic low back pain). Chronic low back pain is usually the kind that this book will examine. Andersson writes: “Although the literature is filled with information about the prevalence and incidence of back pain in general, there is less information about chronic back pain … .” Indeed, it is almost impossible to measure how much chronic low back pain there is: for every time that acute low back pain is the main reason for a visit to a physician, how many times does a patient mention low back pain as a secondary problem? Or sees an alternative health care professional about it instead? (Answer: pretty danged often.) So it’s actually possible that low back pain is the single most common reason that people seek help. BACK TO TEXT
<>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.
<>Injections. If other measures don't relieve your pain, and if your pain radiates down your leg, your doctor may inject cortisone — an anti-inflammatory medication — or numbing medication into the space around your spinal cord (epidural space). A cortisone injection helps decrease inflammation around the nerve roots, but the pain relief usually lasts less than a few months.
<>A great exercise for the lower tummy muscles is shown in the image below. It is extremely gentle and also very effective. Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Breathe in and as you breathe out bring one knee in towards your chest and as you breathe in return the foot to the floor. Repeat this exercise six to eight times on each leg.
<>Kneeling Lunge Stretch. Starting on both knees, move one leg forward so the foot is flat on the ground, keeping weight evenly distributed through both hips (rather than on one side or the other). Place both hands on the top of the thigh, and gently lean the body forward to feel a stretch in the front of the other leg. This stretch affects the hip flexor muscles, which attach to the pelvis and can impact posture if too tight.
<>I had suffered from undiagnosed and seemingly untreatable low back pain since late August last year. Three physiotherapists, my GP, two RMTs, and my generally excellent personal trainer failed to help me make any progress. At my last visit to my GP in late December, he maintained his insistence that I just needed to loosen up my hamstrings! The systematic approach you took to reviewing all the supposed cures and providing a clear analysis of each and no doubt saved me thousands of dollars and months of frustration. That gave me the focus to work on trigger points known to cause LBP (with the help of some additional books and a great TP therapy app for my phone). My back pain isn’t totally gone, but I’m 95% there and I’ve got a handle on it.
<>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."
<>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.
<>Mechanical pain. By far the most common cause of lower back pain, mechanical pain (axial pain) is pain primarily from the muscles, ligaments, joints (facet joints, sacroiliac joints), or bones in and around the spine. This type of pain tends to be localized to the lower back, buttocks, and sometimes the top of the legs. It is usually influenced by loading the spine and may feel different based on motion (forward/backward/twisting), activity, standing, sitting, or resting.
<>Even more tragic is that good information exists, and not just here in this book: many medical experts do “get it” (the doctors doing the actual research). But they have fought a long battle trying to spread the word to their own medical colleagues on the front lines of health care. A 2010 report in Archives of Internal Medicine showed just how grim it is:
<>Sometimes, however, the conditions that cause acute back pain can lead to more chronic and serious problems. Clues to a different and more serious cause include: persistent pain, pain and numbness that radiate down both the legs, bothersome pain at night plus fever, weight loss and swelling of the joints. If you experience any of these, it's important you consult a doctor who can examine you carefully, X-ray your back and perform some lab tests. Possible causes of pain in these cases could include ankylosing spondylitis or an infection or tumor of the spine.
<>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.
<>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.
<>Start facedown on a stability ball with feet resting on floor and core engaged so body forms a straight line. Keeping your back naturally arched, place hands behind ears and lower your upper body as far as you comfortably can. Squeeze glutes and engage back to and raise your torso until it’s in line with your lower body. Pause, then slowly lower your torso back to the starting position. Repeat for 12 to 15 reps.
<>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.]
<>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.
<>I am a science writer and a former Registered Massage Therapist with a decade of experience treating tough pain cases. I was the Assistant Editor of ScienceBasedMedicine.org for several years. I’ve written hundreds of articles and several books, and I’m known for readable but heavily referenced analysis, with a touch of sass. I am a runner and ultimate player. • more about me • more about PainScience.com
<>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
<>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).
<>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.
<>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.
<>An accurate history and physical examination are essential for evaluating acute low back pain. Often, patients awaken with morning pain or develop pain after minor forward bending, twisting, or lifting. It is also important to note whether it is a first episode or a recurrent episode. Recurrent episodes usually are more painful with increased symptoms. Red flags are often used to distinguish a common, benign episode from a more significant problem that requires urgent workup and treatment (Table 2).5,6,8 A recent study shows that some red flags are more important than others, and that red flags overall are poor at ruling in more serious causes of low back pain.8 Patients with back pain in the primary care setting (80 percent) tend to have one or more red flags, but rarely have a serious condition.8  However, physicians should be aware of the signs and symptoms of cauda equina syndrome, major intra-abdominal pathology, infections, malignancy, and fractures (Tables 15,6  and 25,6,8). Cauda equina syndrome and infections require immediate referral. Family physicians should rely on a comprehensive clinical approach rather than solely on a checklist of red flags.
<>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.
<>When the first 24 hours are over, you can turn to heat to cure back pain fast at home. Heat helps to ease the strained muscle and reduce tension. It can help to increase range of motion and reduce pain. In this case, you want to bring the healing blood to the site, and heat will do that, dilating the blood vessels and encouraging blood flow. Don’t let the heating pad get too hot and don’t use it for more than an hour or so at a time. The heat can hurt your skin, leading to more problems. Here’s how heat therapy works to make you feel better.
<>In the elderly, atherosclerosis can cause weakening of the wall of the large arterial blood vessel (aorta) in the abdomen. This weakening can lead to a bulging (aneurysm) of the aorta wall. While most aneurysms cause no symptoms, some cause a pulsating low back pain. Aneurysms of certain size, especially when enlarging over time, can require surgical repair with a grafting procedure to repair the abnormal portion of the artery.
<>It is not clear whether athletes experience low back pain more often than the general public. Because of a aucity of trials with athlete-specific populations, recommendations on treatments must be made from reviews of treatments for the general population. Several large systemic reviews and Cochrane reviews have compiled evidence on different modalities for low back pain. Superficial heat, spinal manipulation, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications, and skeletal muscle relaxants have the strongest evidence of benefit.
<>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.
<>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
<>Today, the most common conventional treatments for lower back pain relief are medications, including NSAIDS like aspirin and Tylenol, along with more potent prescription painkillers, such analgesics. These drugs can potentially cause adverse side effects in some patients and commonly don’t solve the underlying causes of lower back pain (such as poor posture, obesity or exercise-related strains). Some medications for back pains have even been tied to complications, such as liver damage or intestinal bleeding, when taken for long periods of time or in high doses.
<>Veritas Health publishes original and accessible health related content written by more than 100 physician authors and peer-reviewed by a 16 member Medical Advisory Board. The Veritas Health platform comprising of Spine-health.com, Arthritis-health.com, Sports-health.com, and Pain-health.com, provides comprehensive information on back pain, arthritis, sports injuries, and chronic pain conditions. For more information visit Veritashealth.com.
<>Dr. Stieber strongly believes that a personalized treatment approach delivers optimal relief and a superior patient experience. As such, your back pain treatment regimen will be tailored based on the severity, duration and underlying cause of your symptoms. For most of our NYC patients, the solution will involve a blend of approaches, including medication, physical therapy and, in rare cases, surgery.
<>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
<>Capsaicin cream, also called capsicum cream, is available in drug stores, health food stores, and online. A typical dosage is 0.025% capsaicin cream applied four times a day. The most common side effect is a stinging or burning sensation in the area. If possible, wear disposable gloves (available at drugstores) before applying the cream. Be careful not to touch the eye area or open skin. A tube or jar of capsaicin cream typically costs between $8 and $25.

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