<>Most acute low back pain fades steadily — up to 90% of it, for uncomplicated cases.14 So does a lot of so-called “chronic” low back pain!15 But when you don’t recover, many of the therapeutic options — things like surgery for a herniated disc — cause anxiety that is unnecessary and harmful. The purpose of this tutorial is to review and expand the options.
<>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.
<>There is a significant overlap of nerve supply to many of the discs, muscles, ligaments, and other spinal structures, and it can be difficult for the brain to accurately sense which is the cause of the pain. For example, a degenerated or torn lumbar disc can feel the same as a pulled muscle – both creating inflammation and painful muscle spasm in the same area. Muscles and ligaments heal rapidly, while a torn disc may or may not. The time course of pain helps determine the cause.
<>The good news regarding back pain is this: Most cases of lower back pain are believed to be due to “mechanical” problems of the musculoskeletal system rather than serious illness or chronic health problems. Abnormalities, weakness, and added stress placed on the bones, joints, ligaments and muscles can all contribute to back problems. It’s been found that the most common causes of low back pain (there are many!) include: (8)
<>Low back pain is the fifth most common reason for all physician visits in the United States.17,29 Approximately one quarter of US adults report having low back pain lasting at least 1 whole day in the past 3 months,17 and 7.6% report at least 1 episode of severe acute low back pain within a 1-year period.8 The prevalence rates of low back pain in athletes range from 1% to 40%.5 Back injuries in the young athlete are a common phenomenon, occurring in 10% to 15% of participants.18 It is not clear if athletes experience low back pain more often than the general population. Comparisons of wrestlers,27 gymnasts,60 and adolescent athletes40 have found back pain more common versus age-matched controls. Other comparisons of athletes and nonathletes have found lower rates of low back pain in athletes than nonathletes.67
<>It is extremely difficult to alter the potentially disabling belief among the lay public that low back pain has a structural mechanical cause. An important reason for this is that this belief continues to be regularly reinforced by the conditions of care of a range of ‘hands-on’ providers, for whom idiosyncratic variations of that view are fundamental to their professional existence.”
<>Rosenzweig, S., Greeson, J. M., Reibel, D. K., Green, J. S., Jasser, S. A., & Beasley, D. (2010, January). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for chronic pain conditions: Variation in treatment outcomes and role of home meditation practice. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 68(1), 29–36. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022399909000944
<>It’s estimated that up to 80 percent of adults experience persistent symptoms of lower back pain at some point in their lives, and about 31 million Americans struggle with the condition at any given time. Given its extremely high prevalence rate — whether due to a weak psoas muscle, sciatic nerve pain or some other cause — it’s not surprising that lower back pain is considered the single leading cause of disability worldwide according to the American Chiropractic Association, with half of all American workers reporting having occasional back troubles each year. (1) Naturally, this leads to millions searching for lower back pain relief.
<>Most back pain can be successfully treated without surgery. If conservative back pain treatment fails, or if you have difficulty standing or walking, you may be a candidate for surgery. Dr. Stieber is a leader in the use of minimally-invasive surgical techniques with advanced expertise in restoring mobility to the back and helping his New York patients return to activity and an improved quality of life.
<>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.
<>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
<>2010 — Updated: Added a very beefy footnote about some new research showing that muscle imbalance does not result in higher rates of injury. This almost should have been a new section, but I decided to just make it a ginormous footnote — footnotes are there for delving if you want to, that’s the idea! You can read a summary of the research in the bibliography (see Hides et al), but the relevance to back pain is spelled out in detail here. And it’s interesting. [Section: Diagnosis: Your low back is not fragile!]
<>A Cochrane review of 10 antidepressant and placebo trials showed no difference in pain relief or depression severity.62 The qualitative analyses found conflicting evidence on the effect of antidepressants on pain intensity in chronic low back pain and no clear evidence that antidepressants reduce depression in chronic low-back-pain patients. Two pooled analyses showed no difference in pain relief between different types of antidepressants and placebo. Another systemic review found different results: Antidepressants were more effective than placebo,9 but the effects were not consistent with all antidepressants. Tricyclic antidepressants were moderately more effective than placebo, but paroxetine and trazodone were not.9 Antidepressants were associated with significantly higher risk for adverse events compared with placebo, with drowsiness, dry mouth, dizziness, and constipation the most commonly reported.54 Duloxetine has recently been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for treatment of chronic low back pain and osteoarthritis,63 and evidence suggests effectiveness in chronic low back pain.58,57
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<>If your symptoms persist more than four to six weeks, you have suffered trauma. If your doctor suspects a serious cause behind the back pain, X-rays may be ordered. X-rays are useful in pinpointing broken bones or other skeletal defects. They can sometimes help locate problems in connective tissue. To analyze soft-tissue damage, including disk problems, computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans may be needed. To determine possible nerve or muscle damage, an electromyogram (EMG) can be useful.
<>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.
<>Pain is a leading cause of insomnia—difficulty with falling asleep and/or staying asleep. Approximately two-thirds of people with chronic back pain suffer from some type of sleep disorder. Paradoxically, inadequate sleep can make your back pain worse. This vicious cycle makes it ineffective to treat just the pain. If you have sleep problems, you need to get the sleep problems addressed too.
<>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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