<>That’s a huge topic, but here’s one simple example of an extremely common problem with back pain science: control groups that don’t control. Rather than comparing a treatment to a good, carefully selected placebo, most studies use a comparison to a treatment that is allegedly neutral, underwhelming, or placebo-ish. That makes the results hard to interpret: if each works about the same, it could mean that the treatments are equally effective … or equally ineffective! So much back pain science has this problem — or any one of a dozen other weak points — that you can effectively ignore at least 80% of all back pain research, because it’s so far from the last word on anything. Good science is essential to solving these problems, but really good studies are also difficult to design and rare. BACK TO TEXT
<>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
<>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.
<>The outlook for low back pain absolutely depends on its precise cause. For example, acute strain injuries generally heal entirely with minimal treatment. On the other hand, bony abnormalities that are irritating the spinal cord can require significant surgical repair and the outlook depends on the surgical result. Long-term optimal results often involve exercise rehabilitation programs that can involve physical therapists.
<>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.
<>Physician specialties that evaluate and treat low back pain range from generalists to subspecialists.These specialties include emergency medicine physicians, general medicine, family medicine, internal medicine, gynecology, spine surgeons (orthopaedics and neurosurgery), rheumatology, pain management, and physiatry. Other health care providers for low back pain include physical therapists, chiropractors, massage therapists, psychologists, and acupuncturists.
<>Three systemic reviews3,6,13 analyzed spinal manipulation therapy (SMT) for low back pain, including (1) high-velocity, low-amplitude manipulation of the spinal joints slightly beyond their passive range of motion; (2) high-velocity, low-amplitude technique rotating the thigh and leg; (3) mobilization within passive range of motion; and (4) instrument-based manipulations. There is moderate evidence of short-term pain relief with acute low back pain treated with SMT.6 Chronic low back pain showed moderate improvement with SMT, which is as effective as NSAIDs and more effective than physical therapy in the long term.6 Patients with mixed acute and chronic low back pain had better pain outcomes in the short and long terms compared with McKenzie therapy, medical care, management by physical therapists, soft tissue treatment, and back school.6 SMT was more effective in reducing pain and improving daily activities when compared with sham therapy.3 Dagenais13 found SMT effective in pain reduction in the short-, intermediate-, and long-term management of acute low back pain. However, a Cochrane review in 2004 on SMT in acute and chronic low back pain concluded that there was no difference in pain reduction or ability to perform daily activities with SMT or standard treatments (medications, physical therapy, exercises, back school, or the care of a general practitioner).3
<>The use of injections and procedures in and around the spine is limited as such treatments often provide only temporary relief. However, they can be important in helping diagnose structural causes in pain and assisting the physical rehabilitation when other methods have failed. The various injection procedures are costly and have potential side effects, which should be discussed in detail before proceeding. Often, a pain specialist or back specialist will also employ rehabilitation and counseling by non-physician personnel such as therapists, counselors, and patient educators.
<>Neurologic examination of the lower extremities includes strength, sensation, and reflex testing (Table 3), even in the absence of significant sciatica. A straight leg raise test is positive for L4-S1 nerve root pain if it radiates below the knee. A reverse straight leg raise test (extending hip and flexing knee while in the prone position) is positive for L3 nerve root pain if it radiates into the anterior thigh. A central, paracentral, or lateral disk herniation may affect different nerve roots at the same level. Examination of the lumbosacral, pelvic, and abdominal regions may provide clues to underlying abnormalities relating to back pain (Table 15,6  and 25,6,8).
<>Expert opinion guidelines on RTP time frames have been published for lumbar spine conditions.20 Lumbar strains should achieve full range of motion before RTP. Patients with spondylolysis and spondylolisthesis (grade 1) should rest 4 to 6 weeks and then demonstrate full range of motion and pain-free extension before RTP.22 Athletes with herniated lumbar disks should rest 6 to 12 weeks following surgical treatment, while those with spinal fusion should wait 1 year to return to activity.20 Many surgeons advise against return to contact sports following spinal fusion.20 Iwamoto et al32 reviewed conservative and surgical treatments in athletes with lumbar disc herniation and time to return to previous level of sports activity. Seventy-nine percent of conservatively treated athletes returned in an average of 4.7 months, while 85% of those treated with microdiscectomy returned in 5.2 to 5.8 months. Sixty-nine percent of percutaneous discectomies returned in 7 weeks to 12 months.32
<>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.
<>You probably don't know it, but you and Paula Abdul have more in common than you think! You are both part of the 65 million Americans affected by back pain. The good news is 95 percent of cases involving back pain do not require surgical treatment. As we age, lower back pain becomes increasingly more and more common. Not to mention, muscle elasticity and bone strength decrease over time, leaving your back vulnerable to strain and injury.
<>Avoiding injury to the low back is a method of preventing low back pain. Additionally, conditioning exercise programs designed to strengthen the lumbar area and adjacent tissues can help to minimize risk of injury to the low back. Specific programs to relieve and prevent back pain can be designed with the help of physical therapists and other treating health-care professionals.
<>Chiropractors use posture exercises and hands-on spinal manipulation to relieve back pain, improve function, and help the body heal itself. They often work in conjunction with other doctors, and they can prescribe diet, exercise, and stretching programs. "A well-trained chiropractor will sort out whether you should be in their care or the care of a physical therapist or medical doctor," Dr. Kowalski explains.
<>This stretch is designed to help lengthen the piriformis muscle over time. This muscle is often the source of sciatica, or radiating leg pain. Sitting with a straight back, cross your left leg over your right leg placing your foot next to your thigh and tuck your right leg in towards your buttocks. Place your right arm on your leg as pictured and slowly ease into a stretch. Be sure to keep your back straight and chest lifted. Hold for 20 seconds and alternative sides, three times.
<>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.
<>Research suggests that topical medications may be just as effective as oral ones. Many of them worked significantly better than placebo. These medications can come in the form of gels, creams, patches, and more. One study also saw decrease in pain when people applied lavender essential oil or ointments prepared with cayenne peppers with acupressure.
<>“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.
<>If you have an attack of lower-back pain that is severe, continuous and not improving, assessment and treatment by a health care professional who focuses on the back or other musculoskeletal problems may help. These practitioners may use both active and passive techniques to help you feel better. Examples of passive techniques that may be used to get you moving include:
<>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 presence of any acute nerve dysfunction should also prompt an immediate visit. These would include the inability to walk or inability to raise or lower your foot at the ankle. Also included would be the inability to raise the big toe upward or walk on your heels or stand on your toes. These might indicate an acute nerve injury or compression. Under certain circumstances, this may be an acute neurosurgical emergency.
<>The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality has identified 11 red flags that doctors look for when evaluating a person with back pain. The focus of these red flags is to detect fractures (broken bones), infections, or tumors of the spine. Presence of any of the following red flags associated with low back pain should prompt a visit to your doctor as soon as possible for complete evaluation.
<>When we stand, the lower back is functioning to support the weight of the upper body. When we bend, extend, or rotate at the waist, the lower back is involved in the movement. Therefore, injury to the structures important for weight bearing, such as the bony spine, muscles, tendons, and ligaments, often can be detected when the body is standing erect or used in various movements.
<>Testimonials on health care websites reek of quackery, so publishing them has always made me a bit queasy. But my testimonials are mostly about the quality of the information I’m selling, and I hope that makes all the difference. So here’s some highlights from the kind words I’ve received over the years … plus some of the common criticisms I receive, at the end. These are all genuine testimonials, mostly received by email. In many cases I withold or change names and identifying details.
<>Injury to the bones and joints: Fractures (breakage of bone) of the lumbar spine and sacrum bone most commonly affect elderly people with osteoporosis, especially those who have taken long-term cortisone medication. For these individuals, occasionally even minimal stresses on the spine (such as bending to tie shoes) can lead to bone fracture. In this setting, the vertebra can collapse (vertebral compression fracture). The fracture causes an immediate onset of severe localized pain that can radiate around the waist in a band-like fashion and is made intensely worse with body motions. This pain generally does not radiate down the lower extremities. Vertebral fractures in younger patients occur only after severe trauma, such as from motor-vehicle accidents or a convulsive seizure.
<>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
<>Evidence from the small number of placebo-controlled trials does not support the use of transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation in the routine management of chronic low back pain.36 Evidence from single lower quality trials is insufficient to accurately judge efficacy of transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation versus other interventions for chronic low back pain or acute low back pain.10
<>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.”
<>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.
<>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.
<>COX-2 inhibitors, such as celecoxib (Celebrex), are more selective members of NSAIDs. Although increased cost can be a negative factor, the incidence of costly and potentially fatal bleeding in the gastrointestinal tract is clearly less with COX-2 inhibitors than with traditional NSAIDs. Long-term safety (possible increased risk for heart attack or stroke) is currently being evaluated for COX-2 inhibitors and NSAIDs.
<>I have had life-altering low back pain for more than 8 years. I’ve had the fusions at L5-S1. Prior to my first surgery I spent 18 months seeking relief through physical therapy, intense massage therapy, myofascial “release” therapy, a visit to Dr. Sarno himself, injections, dry needling of trigger points and massage from a physiatrist, chiropractic work and more. For years between surgeries I tried core strengthening, acupuncture, PT, more massage, two rhizotomies, and visits to the Mayo clinic and Johns Hopkins’ pain management in-patient programs. So I’ve been through a lot. And your book is the first thing I’ve read that dispassionately and entertainingly dissects all of the options and offers some realistic, pragmatic suggestions. It’s a gift to all back pain sufferers.
<>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.]
<>If your back pain hasn't resolved itself within four to six weeks, you'll want to make an appointment with your doctor. Your doc will examine your back and ask you to sit, stand, bend, walk, and lift your legs to see how your pain is affecting your mobility. You'll likely be asked to rate your pain on a scale of one to 10, and you may be sent for imaging tests like an x-ray or MRI. You might be asked to try one of these therapies:
<>Poor posture and crookedness is another popular scapegoat — it seems obvious that posture is relevant. Many professionals assume that back pain is some kind of postural problem that you can exercise your way clear of. Unfortunately, the evidence shows that no kind of exercise, not even the most hard-core core strengthening, has any significant effect on low back pain.
<>You know that calcium is key for strong bones, but Japanese researchers have identified something else you need: vitamin K. It’s believed that the vitamin, found in broccoli, spinach, and other dark leafy greens, helps calcium deposit in the bones, making them denser. The stronger your bones, the stronger your whole body—and the lower your chances of an injury that could cause back pain.
<>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.
<>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.

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