<>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.
<>Save a bundle on a bundle! The boxed set is a 50% discounted bundle of all 8 book-length tutorials for sale on this website, about 8 different common injuries and pain problems. It’s ideal for professionals, keen patients, and anyone who wants more for less. Purchased individually, all the tutorials would cost $160, but the set price is only $79.50. More information and purchase options.
<>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.
<>2013 — New section: An overdue upgrade! This way pain and fear power each other is now explained much more clearly and thoroughly than before. It’s noteworthy that, with this update, Dr. Lorimer Moseley’s valuable perspective on back pain is now fairly well-represented in this book. [Section: Pain and fear, together at last: an even simpler vicious cycle.]
<>Having strong core muscles (we’re talking abs here) can help protect your back from injury. Do this core-strengthening pelvic tilt 2 to 3 times per week: Lie on your back with knees bent, feet flat on the floor, and lower back flattened. Pull in your belly button toward your spine, contracting your abs; your pelvis should lift slightly off the floor.
<>There are a number of medications that can relieve back pain. Over-the-counter pain relievers, muscle relaxants, topical pain relievers and narcotics are all extremely effective in increasing your comfort. In addition, cortisone injections can decrease inflammation around the nerve roots and low doses of antidepressants can relieve certain types of chronic back pain.
<>Physical therapists often recommend aquatic therapy — including exercises done in warm, therapeutic pools — for back pain. The buoyancy of the water helps alleviate strain on the joints to encourage strengthening and gentle stretching of the muscles. Even floating in warm water can help relax muscles and release tension as well as increase circulation, according to the Arthritis Foundation. With home whirlpool baths, try aiming the jets directly at your sore spots for a soothing underwater massage.
<>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)
<>THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
<>Low back pain can certainly be sensitive to emotional state, just like an ulcer gets worse when you’re stressed. But both are real physical problems! All of this will be discussed in detail, and it’s important, but this is not a tutorial about treating back pain through psychoanalysis, stress relief, and positive thinking. Tools like yoga and meditation are great for those who enjoy them, but not required.
<>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.
<>Bleeding in the pelvis is rare without significant trauma and is usually seen in patients who are taking blood-thinning medications, such as warfarin (Coumadin). In these patients, a rapid-onset sciatica pain can be a sign of bleeding in the back of the pelvis and abdomen that is compressing the spinal nerves as they exit to the lower extremities. Infection of the pelvis is infrequent but can be a complication of conditions such as diverticulosis, Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, pelvic inflammatory disease with infection of the Fallopian tubes or uterus, and even appendicitis. Pelvic infection is a serious complication of these conditions and is often associated with fever, lowering of blood pressure, and a life-threatening state.
<>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.
<>Magnesium is the fourth most abundant mineral in the body. Involved in over 300 biochemical reactions, it helps maintain normal muscle and nerve function, keeps heart rhythm steady, supports a healthy immune system, and preserves bones strength. Magnesium also helps regulate blood sugar levels, promotes normal blood pressure, and is known to be involved in energy metabolism and protein synthesis.
<>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.
<>Exercise is good for low back pain -- but not all exercises are beneficial. Any mild discomfort felt at the start of these exercises should disappear as muscles become stronger. But if pain is more than mild and lasts more than 15 minutes during exercise, patients should stop exercising and contact a doctor. Some exercises may aggravate pain. Standing toe touches, for example, put greater stress on the disks and ligaments in your spine. They can also overstretch lower back muscles and hamstrings.
<>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.
<>There are many additional sources of pain, including claudication pain (from stenosis) myelopathic pain, neuropathic pain, deformity, tumors, infections, pain from inflammatory conditions (such as rheumatoid arthritis or ankylosing spondylitis), and pain that originates from another part of the body and presents in the lower back (such as kidney stones, or ulcerative colitis).
<>Bleeding in the pelvis is rare without significant trauma and is usually seen in patients who are taking blood-thinning medications, such as warfarin (Coumadin). In these patients, a rapid-onset sciatica pain can be a sign of bleeding in the back of the pelvis and abdomen that is compressing the spinal nerves as they exit to the lower extremities. Infection of the pelvis is infrequent but can be a complication of conditions such as diverticulosis, Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, pelvic inflammatory disease with infection of the Fallopian tubes or uterus, and even appendicitis. Pelvic infection is a serious complication of these conditions and is often associated with fever, lowering of blood pressure, and a life-threatening state.
<>Levator scapula stretch. Rest one arm against a wall or doorjamb with the elbow slightly above the shoulder, then turn the head to face the opposite direction. Bring the chin down toward the collarbone to feel a stretch in the back of the neck. It may be helpful to gently pull the head forward with the other hand to hold the stretch for the desired time.
<>It may sound funny to massage your own back, but it is easy to have someone massage your back for you. In fact, having a loved one or friend use Ben Gay to massage the cream into your back is a great way to naturally help your back pain. Don’t massage directly over the spine, as this can cause harm to that delicate collection of anatomical structures. Long, smooth strokes over the entirety of the back are the best. These are called gliding movements, and they help to relax the muscles under the skin. Work the muscles up and down the back to either side of the spine, allowing the hands to glide over the problem area and work the cream into the muscle to provide maximum, natural healing. Next, find out the 15 everyday habits that are causing back pain and damaging your spine. 
<>When structural problems are exaggerated, you also get a plague of bogus explanations and solutions based on that. Spines do degenerate, but not for the reasons most people think they do: genetics is by far the biggest factor in degeneration,27 not your posture, your office chair or mattress, your core stability, or anything else that low back pain sufferers have taught to blame their pain on.
<>Return-to-play (RTP) guidelines are difficult to standardize for low back pain because of a lack of supporting evidence. A commonly encountered question is, can athletes play through pain? There is no simple answer to this question. For example, an athlete with suspected spondylolysis is generally advised that he or she should not play through pain, while athletes with chronic low back pain from muscular or ligamentous strain may continue to practice, exercise, and compete. However, there is little evidence to support either of these approaches. These athletes should always be monitored for their safety.
<>Braces are not effective in preventing back pain.64 However, there is conflicting evidence to whether braces are effective supplements to other preventive interventions.64 Bracing, in combination with activity restriction, is effective in the treatment of spondylolysis in adolescents.33,42,46,53 A meta-analysis of 15 observational spondylolysis and grade 1 spondylolisthesis treatment studies did not find a significant improvement in rates of healing with bracing when compared with conservative treatment without bracing.37 Most experts recommend surgical consultation for spondylolisthesis with 50% slippage or more (grade 3 and higher).46
<>Lumbar radiculopathy: Lumbar radiculopathy is nerve irritation that is caused by damage to the discs between the vertebrae. Damage to the disc occurs because of degeneration ("wear and tear") of the outer ring of the disc, traumatic injury, or both. As a result, the central softer portion of the disc can rupture (herniate) through the outer ring of the disc and abut the spinal cord or its nerves as they exit the bony spinal column. This rupture is what causes the commonly recognized "sciatica" pain of a herniated disc that shoots from the low back and buttock down the leg. Sciatica can be preceded by a history of localized low-back aching or it can follow a "popping" sensation and be accompanied by numbness and tingling. The pain commonly increases with movements at the waist and can increase with coughing or sneezing. In more severe instances, sciatica can be accompanied by incontinence of the bladder and/or bowels. The sciatica of lumbar radiculopathy typically affects only one side of the body, such as the left side or right side, and not both. Lumbar radiculopathy is suspected based on the above symptoms. Increased radiating pain when the lower extremity is lifted supports the diagnosis. Nerve testing (EMG/electromyogramspina bifida
<>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.
<>The treatment of lumbar strain consists of resting the back (to avoid reinjury), medications to relieve pain and muscle spasm, local heat applications, massage, and eventual (after the acute episode resolves) reconditioning exercises to strengthen the low back and abdominal muscles. Initial treatment at home might include heat application, acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), and avoiding reinjury and heavy lifting. Prescription medications that are sometimes used for acute low back pain include anti-inflammatory medications, such as sulindac (Clinoril), naproxen (Naprosyn), and ketorolac (Toradol) by injection or by mouth, muscle relaxants, such as carisoprodol (Soma), cyclobenzaprine (Flexeril), methocarbamol (Robaxin), and metaxalone (Skelaxin), as well as analgesics, such as tramadol (Ultram).
<>This extremely popular 2017 article on Vox.com the “new science” of low back pain was praised by many because it superficially seems to be very modern and science-y, and it correctly dismisses a number of myths, but I think it’s an exasperating failure. It creates a strong impression of being scientifically rigorous without actually being so. It brims with promising science news about alternative treatments that do not actually stand up to more cynical and experienced analysis. Adding to the façade of scientific credibility, many of the right caveats and disclaimers about the “new science” are technically there — warnings about small effect sizes, mixed evidence, and potential flaws — but these cautions are also belated and consistently understated. The tone is overwhelmingly sunny and naïve, as though we are on the verge of a revolution in back pain treatment thanks to … a bunch of stuff that has been around forever and has clearly not been saving the world from chronic low back pain.
<>Lose excess weight. As we gain weight, stress and pressure on the lower spine and back muscles increases. The heavy weight at the front of the body can cause an increased arch in the spine and may lead to injury and compression of the discs and nerves. Losing weight reduces the tendency to arch the back and relieves pressure on the lower spine and nerves.
<>A physiatrist or interventional pain management doctor may help you avoid more invasive treatments. “These can include medications delivered to the spine such as epidural steroid injections to reduce inflammation, or radiofrequency nerve ablations to reduce transmission of neck or back pain,” explains Koser. The expert you meet with will go over all of the options available to you.
<>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.
<>Clearly, stretching works as an effective back pain treatment (and offers a more natural pain relief solution than other common pain interventions, like prescription painkillers or surgery). But why is stretching so effective? Which back pain stretches should you be doing to maximize results? And what are the best ways to incorporate back pain exercises into your daily routine to strengthen your core and keep pain at bay?
<>Low back pain is one of the most common complaints on the planet. And you may wonder where to turn when you start experiencing some of those aches or twinges in the lower part of your back. Take heart. "In most cases, you won't need a specialist," says Dr. Robert Shmerling, a rheumatologist at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
<>Is “much” information really “just plain wrong”? I will establish this in the sections ahead with a steady supply of clearly explained references to the medical literature that patients can understand and professionals can respect. This extra layer of information in easy-to-use footnotes is available for any reader who wants to dig deeper and check my facts. For example, here’s a good start: In 2010, the Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery reported that “the quality and content of health information on the internet is highly variable for common sports medicine topics,” such as knee pain and low back pain — a bit of an understatement, really. Expert reviewers examined about 75 top-ranked commercial websites and another 30 academic sites. They gave each a quality score on a scale of 100. The average score? Barely over 50! For more detail, see Starman et al. BACK TO TEXT
<>Cold can be applied to the low back with towels, gel packs, ice packs, and ice massage. Heat methods include water bottles and baths, soft packs, saunas, steam, wraps, and electric pads. There are few high-quality randomized controlled trials supporting superficial cold or heat therapy for the treatment of acute or subacute low back pain. A Cochrane review cited moderate evidence supporting superficial heat therapy as reducing pain and disability in patients with acute and subacute low back pain, with the addition of exercise further reducing pain and improved function.22 The effects of superficial heat seem strongest for the first week following injury.44
<>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.
<>In some cases, it’s difficult to pinpoint the cause of chronic back pain. “If your doctor has exhausted all diagnostic options, it’s time to seek a second opinion from a back pain specialist,” recommends Nava. It’s important not to make rushed decisions or undergo extensive medical procedures until the origin of the pain is found. Not only may they not help; they could make the pain worse, warns Nava.
<>I’m writing to congratulate and thank you for your impressive ongoing review of musculoskeletal research. I teach a course, Medicine in Society, at St. Leonards Hospital in Hoxton. I originally stumbled across your website whilst looking for information about pain for my medical students, and have recommended your tutorials to them. Your work deserves special mention for its transparency, evidence base, clear presentation, educational content, regular documented updates, and lack of any commercial promotional material.
<>When you're working to strengthen the core, you'll want to focus on exercises that don't exacerbate lower back issues. "It's important to find out which movements (flexion, extension, rotation) cause pain or discomfort and to avoid those movements, while continuing to work into ranges that are not provoking," Dircksen says. Crockford suggests focusing on exercises that keep the core stable and avoiding twisting movements to avoid exacerbating pain.
<>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.
<>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:
<>As with any sort of pain, it's crucial to figure out the source so you can properly treat it. Sharp or stabbing pain that extends beyond your low back or is accompanied by symptoms like abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting, could be signs of various other conditions and definitely warrant a trip to the doctor. If you have a history of lower back injuries or disc problems, always see your doctor before trying any new exercise.
<>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
<>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.
<>Braces are not effective in preventing back pain.64 However, there is conflicting evidence to whether braces are effective supplements to other preventive interventions.64 Bracing, in combination with activity restriction, is effective in the treatment of spondylolysis in adolescents.33,42,46,53 A meta-analysis of 15 observational spondylolysis and grade 1 spondylolisthesis treatment studies did not find a significant improvement in rates of healing with bracing when compared with conservative treatment without bracing.37 Most experts recommend surgical consultation for spondylolisthesis with 50% slippage or more (grade 3 and higher).46
<>The McKenzie method45 uses clinical examination to separate patients with low back pain into subgroups (postural, dysfunction, and derangement) to determine appropriate treatment. The goal is symptom relief through individualized treatment by the patient at home. The McKenzie method is not exclusively extension exercises; it emphasizes patient education to decrease pain quickly, restore function, minimize the number of visits to the clinic, and prevent recurrences.45 Two systemic reviews have compared the McKenzie method with different conclusions.11,43 Clare et al11 concluded that McKenzie therapy resulted in decreased short-term (less than 3 months) pain and disability when compared with NSAIDs, educational booklet, back massage with back care advice, strength training with therapist supervision, and spinal mobilization. Machado et al43 concluded that the McKenzie method does not produce clinically worthwhile changes in pain and disability when compared with passive therapy and advice to stay active for acute LBP.
<>Dr. Jerome Groopman has written brilliantly about back pain, from personal experience. In How Doctors Think he puts back pain in the context of how medical thinking is influenced by marketing and money, giving us a somewhat chilling insiders’ view of the surgical treatment of back pain. In The Anatomy of Hope, he tells his own story of super severe back pain. It has a happy ending! Both books are also otherwise worthwhile. “Marketing, Money, and Medical Decisions,” a chapter in the book How doctors think, by Jerome Groopman. Groopman, writing from personal experience with chronic back pain and a spinal fusion surgery, discusses back pain as intelligently as any medical expert I’ve come across, but he does so in a way that will fascinate patients. In this chapter, his discussion of back pain is placed in the context of how medical thinking is influenced by marketing and money, giving us a somewhat chilling insiders’ view of the surgical treatment of back pain.
<>Another way to get lower back pain relief is to hook up with an expert in physical therapy, who will guide you in safe exercises that can strengthen and stretch the muscles. “This will prevent symptoms from worsening and further damage to the spine,” says Strassberg. She says that PTs address symptoms and target the underlying cause so that you can prevent future discomfort.
<>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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