<>Acute low back pain can be defined as six to 12 weeks of pain between the costal angles and gluteal folds that may radiate down one or both legs (sciatica). Acute low back pain is often nonspecific and therefore cannot be attributed to a definite cause. However, possible causes of acute low back pain (e.g., infection, tumor, osteoporosis, fracture, inflammatory arthritis) need to be considered based on the patient's history and physical examination. Table 1 presents the differential diagnosis of acute low back pain.5,6
<>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.
<>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.
<>Leg lifts are sometimes suggested as an exercise to "strengthen your core" or abdominal muscles. Exercising to restore strength to your lower back can be very helpful in relieving pain yet  lifting both legs together while lying on your back is very demanding on your core.  If weak, this exercise can make back pain worse. Instead, try lying on your back with one leg straight and the other leg bent at the knee. Keeping your lower back flat on floor. Slowly lift the straight  leg up about 6 inches and hold briefly. Lower leg slowly. Repeat 10 times, then switch legs.
<>Once in a great while some cranky reader (always a guy) writes to tell me, “I didn’t learn anything from your book.” I’m a little skeptical about that, and it’s always tempting to start quizzing! There’s a great deal of information here, including analyses of recent research. Sure, readers who have already done a lot of reading about back pain might already be familiar with a lot of it — but you will know that going in, of course, and you’ll find the nuggets of new information and perspective that any keen reader is always looking for. BACK TO TEXT
<>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.
<>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
<>There are no systemic reviews for ultrasound.10 One small nonrandomized trial48 for patients with acute sciatica found ultrasonography superior to sham ultrasonography or analgesics for relief of pain. All patients were prescribed bed rest. For patients with chronic back pain, the small trials were contradictory to whether ultrasonography was any better than sham ultrasonography.2,52
<>Low-level laser therapy (LLLT) is a noninvasive light source treatment that generates a single wavelength of light without generating heat, sound, or vibration. Also called photobiology or biostimulation, LLLT may accelerate connective tissue repair and serve as an anti-inflammatory agent. Wavelengths from 632 to 904 nm are used in the treatment of musculoskeletal disorders. A Cochrane review of 7 small studies with a total of 384 patients with nonspecific low back pain of varying durations found insufficient data to either support or refute the effectiveness of LLLT for the treatment of low back pain. Because of the varied length of treatment, LLLT dose, application techniques, and different populations, it was not possible to determine optimal administration of LLLT.71 No side effects were reported.
<>Whether or not research can prove that massage therapy helps, many people report that it relaxes them and eases chronic pain. In a 2009 research review published in Spine, researchers reviewed 13 clinical trials on the use of massage in the treatment of back pain. The study authors concluded that massage "might be beneficial for patients with subacute and chronic nonspecific low back pain, especially when combined with exercises and education." The authors called for further studies that might help determine whether massage is a cost-effective treatment for low back pain.
<>Aquatic therapy: Aquatic therapy and exercise can also improve flexibility and decrease pain for some people with chronic low back problems. It is especially beneficial for those patients who cannot tolerate land-based physical therapy.This is because the unique properties of water often make it a safe environment for exercising a sore back, providing gentle resistance, comfort, and relaxation. Fear of pain associated with movement is a major limiting factor for rehabilitation and exercises therapy. The support and warmth of the water enables a person to gradually introduce daily exercise into their treatment.
<>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
<>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.”
<>A meta-analysis found traction no more effective than placebo, sham, or no treatment for any outcome for low back pain with or without sciatica.12 The results consistently indicated that continuous or intermittent traction as a single treatment for low back pain is not effective.12 Side effects included worsening of signs and symptoms and increased subsequent surgery; however, the reports are inconsistent.10
<>A randomized single-blind controlled trial compared manual therapy and spinal stabilization rehabilitation to control (education booklet) for chronic back pain.26 Spinal stabilization rehabilitation was more effective than either manipulation or the education booklet in reducing pain, disability, medication intake, and improving the quality of life for chronic low back pain.26 A systemic review found segmental stabilizing exercises more effective in reducing the recurrence of pain in acute low back pain; however, exercises were no better than treatment by general practitioner in reducing short-term disability and pain.50 For chronic low back pain, segmental stabilizing exercises were more effective than treatment from general practitioners but no more effective than exercises using devices, massage, electrotherapy, or heat.50 In a trial of 30 hockey players, dynamic muscular stabilization techniques (an active approach to stabilization training) were more effective than a combination of ultrasound and short-wave diathermy and lumbar strengthening exercises.41
<>Grandma was right! Slouching is bad for you. And poor posture can make back pain worse, especially if you sit for long periods. Don't slump over your keyboard. Sit upright, with your shoulders relaxed and your body supported against the back of your chair. Try putting a pillow or a rolled towel between your lower back and your seat. Keep your feet flat on the floor.

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Medical Disclaimer: The material on this site is provided for informational purposes only and is not medical advice. Always consult your physician before beginning any exercise program.

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