<>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.]
<>Most of us spend a good part of our day sitting down, which may be more harmful than you realize. You can minimize the impact by maintaining good posture. Correct posture in a chair means having all the bones in your spine lined up neatly, like a stack of perfectly aligned blocks. You should keep your feet flat on the floor and your computer keyboard within easy reach so you’re not leaning forward or slumping. This is part of proper office ergonomics.
<>Research shows that certain forms of magnesium can be effective for pain relief and muscle relaxation, as well as nerve pain. Many people in our society are magnesium deficient, so it may be a good idea to supplement. Magnesium glycinate is known to be a highly bioavailable form. Magnesium citrate can be used by those who tend toward constipation, as it has an additional effect of loosening the bowels.
<>This final stretch is great at stretching out your spine and it feels good to do, too. Lie on your back and place a small cushion under your head. Keep your knees bent and together. Keep your upper body relaxed and your chin gently tucked in. Take a big deep breath in and as you breathe out roll your knees to one side, followed by your pelvis, keeping both shoulders on the floor. Take a big deep breathe in as you return to the starting position. Repeat six to eight times, alternating sides.
<>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
<>Battié MC, Videman T, Kaprio J, et al. The Twin Spine Study: contributions to a changing view of disc degeneration. Spine J. 2009;9(1):47–59. PubMed #19111259. “The once commonly held view that disc degeneration is primarily a result of aging and wear and tear from mechanical insults and injuries was not supported by this series of studies. Instead, disc degeneration appears to be determined in great part by genetic influences. Although environmental factors also play a role, it is not primarily through routine physical loading exposures (eg, heavy vs. light physical demands) as once suspected.” BACK TO TEXT
<>Low-impact aerobics. Low-impact aerobic exercise increases the flow of blood and supports healing from an injury without jarring the spine. Low-impact aerobics can include using stationary bikes, elliptical or step machines, walking, and water therapy. People with low back pain who regularly do aerobic exercise report fewer recurring pain episodes and are more likely to stay active and functional when pain flares.
<>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.
<>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.
<>Turns out that the committees that write these things do not necessarily know the science! One of the best reviews of back pain research ever published — Machado 2009, more on this one later — found something really interesting: “treatment recommendations from recent clinical guidelines do not align with the results of this meta-analysis.” In fact, quite a few disproven pain treatments are still cheerfully recommended in otherwise sensible professional guidelines. Eek. BACK TO TEXT
<>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.
<>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.
<>Practice yoga. Holding downward dog for five to ten seconds can help stretch your back muscles. This motion reduces pressure that can build up in the lower spine and cause pain. Remember to also tilt the pelvis under to avoid any further lower back strain. Pigeon pose is another great posture for backaches. Hip muscles can quickly become tight and shift strain to the back. Stretching out hip flexors and extensors can alleviate back pressure and 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.]
<>Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulator (TENS) machines are small, battery-powered devices that transmit low-voltage electrical currents through electrodes that are attached to your skin. Considered very safe, TENS machines, according to one theory, work by scrambling the message of pain to the brain — literally blocking it. Another theory suggests that the electrical impulses cause a release of endorphins that override the sensation of pain. Many back pain patients have had success with TENS machines, though their effectiveness has not been clearly proven in controlled studies. Ask your doctor or physical therapist if this therapy might be right for you.
<>Nerve irritation: The nerves of the lumbar spine can be irritated by mechanical pressure (impingement) by bone or other tissues, or from disease, anywhere along their paths -- from their roots at the spinal cord to the skin surface. These conditions include lumbar disc disease (radiculopathy), bony encroachment, and inflammation of the nerves caused by a viral infection (shingles). See descriptions of these conditions below.
<>You don’t need to take my word for anything — you can just take the word of the many low back pain medical experts that I quote,12 and the hard evidence that their opinions are based on. At the same time, I am realistic about the limits of the science, much of which is pretty junky.13 My own credentials are somewhat beside the point. My decade of professional experience as a Registered Massage Therapist does help me understand and write about low back pain, but what really matters is that I refer to and explain recent scientific evidence, but without blindly trusting it.
<>White willow bark, for instance, may have pain-relieving properties similar to aspirin. Salicin, a compound found in white willow bark, is converted in the body to salicylic acid, just as aspirin is. Salicylic acid is believed to be the active compound that relieves pain and inflammation. Another herb sometimes used in the treatment of back pain is devil's claw. Devil's claw contains harpagosides, which are chemical compounds found to possess anti-inflammatory properties.
<>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.
<>Some exercises can aggravate back pain and should be avoided when you have acute low back pain. Partial crunches can help strengthen your back and stomach muscles. Lie with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Cross arms over your chest or put hands behind your neck. Tighten stomach muscles and raise your shoulders off the floor.  Breathe out as you raise your shoulders. Don't lead with your elbows or use arms to pull your neck off the floor. Hold for a second, then slowly lower back down. Repeat 8 to 12 times. Proper form prevents excessive stress on your low back. Your feet, tailbone, and lower back should remain in contact with the mat at all times.
<>One of the most common reasons people develop low back pain is posture. Postural problems, including spinal abnormalities, along with muscular compensations or inactivity put added pressure on the back. Although people of all ages experience low back pain — including both athletes and those who are sedentary — middle-aged to older adults (especially when they’re overweight) are most likely to develop severe symptoms and therefore can benefit from lower back pain relief treatments like chiropractic care, soft tissue therapy and regular exercise.
<>Congenital bone conditions: Congenital causes (existing from birth) of low back pain include scoliosis and spina bifida. Scoliosis is a sideways (lateral) curvature of the spine that can be caused when one lower extremity is shorter than the other (functional scoliosis) or because of an abnormal architecture of the spine (structural scoliosis). Children who are significantly affected by structural scoliosis may require treatment with bracing and/or surgery to the spine. Adults infrequently are treated surgically but often benefit by support bracing. Spina bifida is a birth defect in the bony vertebral arch over the spinal canal, often with absence of the spinous process. This birth defect most commonly affects the lowest lumbar vertebra and the top of the sacrum. Occasionally, there are abnormal tufts of hair on the skin of the involved area. Spina bifida can be a minor bony abnormality without symptoms. However, the condition can also be accompanied by serious nervous abnormalities of the lower extremities.
<>Talking about your back pain with a therapist may bring some relief. In a UK study, back pain sufferers who had 90 minutes of group cognitive behavioral therapy a week for six weeks reported less pain during the treatment. (Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on solving problems by changing thoughts and behavior.) A year later, 59% said their pain was totally cured, compared to just 31% in the group that did not go through therapy.
<>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
<>Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.
<>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.
<>One of the most common reasons people develop low back pain is posture. Postural problems, including spinal abnormalities, along with muscular compensations or inactivity put added pressure on the back. Although people of all ages experience low back pain — including both athletes and those who are sedentary — middle-aged to older adults (especially when they’re overweight) are most likely to develop severe symptoms and therefore can benefit from lower back pain relief treatments like chiropractic care, soft tissue therapy and regular exercise.
<>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.

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