<>Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.
<>Before you dive into the best exercises for lower back pain, it’s important to understand that there are a multitude of reasons why an individual would experience muscle soreness. In the case of this article, we’ll focus on the most common one: sitting. Over time, prolonged periods of sitting can manipulate our posture, resulting in specific muscles becoming weaker.
<>Massage might be beneficial for patients with subacute and chronic nonspecific low back pain, especially when combined with exercises and education.24 Acupressure or pressure point massage technique was more effective than classic massage. A second systemic review found insufficient evidence to determine efficacy of massage for acute low back pain.10 Evidence was insufficient to determine effects of the number or duration of massage sessions.
<>A 2008 Cochrane review of randomized controlled trials for subacute and chronic low back pain included 18 trials of 1179 participants.59 Studies that compared intradiscal injections, prolotherapy, ozone, sacroiliac joint injections, or epidural steroids for radicular pain were excluded unless injection therapy with another pharmaceutical agent was part of one of the treatment arms. Corticosteroids, local anesthetics, indomethacin, sodium hyaluronate, and B12 were used. Of 18 trials, 10 were rated for high methodological quality. Statistical pooling was not possible because of clinical heterogeneity in the trials yielding no strong evidence for or against the use of injection therapy.59
<>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
<>Get some exercise. You may be tempted to stay in bed when your back acts up, but exercise and activity can actually help you heal faster and reduce pain. A study of 240 men and women found that regular exercise reduced pain by 28 percent and disability by 36 percent. Low impact, moderate intensity exercise is the safest option. Avoid movements that trigger pain or require excessive jumping or squatting, which can exacerbate injuries. Take two to three minutes at the end of your workout to stretch your back thoroughly. Lie flat on your back and hug your knees to release any tension that developed during your workout.
<>There is strong scientific support for the effectiveness of Alexander Technique lessons in the treatment of chronic back pain, according to a research review published in the International Journal of Clinical Practice in 2012. The review included one well-designed, well-conducted clinical trial demonstrating that Alexander Technique lessons led to significant long-term reductions in back pain and incapacity caused by chronic back pain. These results were broadly supported by a smaller, earlier clinical trial testing the use of Alexander Technique lessons in the treatment of chronic back pain.
<>Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.
<>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
<>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.
<>Preliminary research suggests that hypnotherapy may be of some use in the treatment of low back pain. For instance, a pilot study published in the International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis found that a four-session hypnosis program (combined with a psychological education program) significantly reduced pain intensity and led to improvements in mood among patients with chronic low back pain.
<>Jackson, M., & Tummon Simmons, L. (2018, April 1). Challenging case in clinical practice: Improvement in chronic osteoarthritis pain with use of arnica oil massage, therapeutic ultrasound, and acupuncture — A case report [Abstract]. Alternative and Complementary Therapies, 24(2), 60–62. Retrieved from https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/act.2018.29152.mja?journalCode=act
<>Conventional treatments such as NSAIDs, heat and ice, and stretching will be enough for most people—but not everyone. “If you’ve exhausted various conservative treatment options and have been in chronic pain for several months, you may be a candidate for minimally invasive spine surgery,” says Koser. There’s no reason to suffer—and you may not have to consider traditional open spine surgery at all. Minimally invasive procedures use an incision of less than one inch and require little downtime. “The muscles are spared during the procedure and are gently spaced apart, rather than being cut or torn away during traditional open spine surgery,” Koser says.
<>Other back pain remedies that work fast at home is over-the-counter pain medications. Tylenol, or acetaminophen, is really not recommended for muscular strains and sprains. If you’ve hurt your back, the best back pain remedy is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication, or NSAID. These are popularly known as Advil (ibuprofen) and Aleve (naproxen). Once again, these medications help to stem the tide of the blood flow to the area to reduce pain. By keeping inflammation low, your pain is decreased, and you are better able to move. Be careful to follow the bottle’s instructions, though, because these medications can cause stomach ulcers.
<>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
<>Because back pain can be so debilitating, a lot of people turn to more serious interventions, like surgery or painkillers — but turns out, all you really need is a good stretch. “Most back pain can be resolved by doing regular exercises to keep muscles that support your spine strong and flexible,” says Fei Jiang, PT, DPT, OCS, at Providence Saint John’s Health Center’s Performance Therapy in Santa Monica, California. In fact, a recent study on back pain found that participants who followed a 12-week stretching regimen reported better back functioning, less pain, and a reduced need for pain medication.[1]
<>An accurate history and physical examination are essential for evaluating acute low back pain. Often, patients awaken with morning pain or develop pain after minor forward bending, twisting, or lifting. It is also important to note whether it is a first episode or a recurrent episode. Recurrent episodes usually are more painful with increased symptoms. Red flags are often used to distinguish a common, benign episode from a more significant problem that requires urgent workup and treatment (Table 2).5,6,8 A recent study shows that some red flags are more important than others, and that red flags overall are poor at ruling in more serious causes of low back pain.8 Patients with back pain in the primary care setting (80 percent) tend to have one or more red flags, but rarely have a serious condition.8  However, physicians should be aware of the signs and symptoms of cauda equina syndrome, major intra-abdominal pathology, infections, malignancy, and fractures (Tables 15,6  and 25,6,8). Cauda equina syndrome and infections require immediate referral. Family physicians should rely on a comprehensive clinical approach rather than solely on a checklist of red flags.
<>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.
<>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.]
<>Low back pain can be caused by tumors, either benign or malignant, that originate in the bone of the spine or pelvis and spinal cord (primary tumors) and those which originate elsewhere and spread to these areas (metastatic tumors). Symptoms range from localized pain to radiating severe pain and loss of nerve and muscle function (even incontinence of urine and stool) depending on whether or not the tumors affect the nervous tissue. Tumors of these areas are detected using imaging tests, such as plain X-rays, nuclear bone scanning, and CAT and MRI scanning.
<>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
<>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.
<>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!]
<>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.
<>Get some exercise. You may be tempted to stay in bed when your back acts up, but exercise and activity can actually help you heal faster and reduce pain. A study of 240 men and women found that regular exercise reduced pain by 28 percent and disability by 36 percent. Low impact, moderate intensity exercise is the safest option. Avoid movements that trigger pain or require excessive jumping or squatting, which can exacerbate injuries. Take two to three minutes at the end of your workout to stretch your back thoroughly. Lie flat on your back and hug your knees to release any tension that developed during your workout.
<>Another great exercise for mobilizing the lower back is the bridge, as shown in the image below. To carry out this exercise lie on your back with knees bent and your feet placed hip distance apart on the floor. Take a deep breath in and as you breathe out lift your hips off the floor until shoulders hips and knees are in a straight line. As you breathe in lower your hips to the floor. Repeat eight to twelve times.
<>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.
<>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.
<>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.
<>Learning to keep your cool is as good for your back as it is for your mental health. When you're anxious, your body sets off the "fight or flight" response, which involves tensing your muscles so you're ready to spring into action. One European study revealed that people prone to negative thoughts and anxiety are more likely to suffer from back pain. Get calm now with these stress-busting solutions.
<>About footnotes. There are 465 footnotes in this document. Click to make them pop up without losing your place. There are two types: more interesting extra content,1Footnotes with more interesting and/or fun extra content are bold and blue, while dry footnotes (citations and such) are lightweight and gray. Type ESC to close footnotes, or re-click the number.
<>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.
<>Moderate-quality evidence shows that non-benzodiazepine muscle relaxants (e.g., cyclobenzaprine [Flexeril], tizanidine [Zanaflex], metaxalone [Skelaxin]) are beneficial in the treatment of acute low back pain. Most pain reduction from these medications occurs in the first seven to 14 days, but the benefit may continue for up to four weeks.19,20 However, nonbenzodiazepine muscle relaxants do not affect disability status.19,20 Very low-quality evidence shows that a short course (up to five days) of oral diazepam (Valium) may also be beneficial for pain relief.19 Because all muscle relaxants have adverse effects, such as drowsiness, dizziness, and nausea, they should be used cautiously. Diazepam and carisoprodol (Soma) use should be brief to decrease the risk of abuse and dependence. There is also moderate-quality evidence that muscle relaxants combined with NSAIDs may have additive benefit for reducing pain.19
<>For example, ginger is a natural anti-inflammatory agent. It may help reduce inflammation associated with back pain, especially helpful after strenuous activities. Consider simmering fresh ginger root slices in hot water for about 30 minutes to prepare a spicy but soothing cup of tea. Capsaicin has also shown some promise for reducing pain. It’s the active ingredient in chili peppers. You can find it in both topical cream and oral supplement forms.
<>A large Cochrane review of 65 trials (11 237 patients) of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and COX-2 inhibitors in the treatment of acute and chronic low back pain showed that NSAIDs had statistically better effects compared with placebo.51 The benefits included global improvement and less additional analgesia requirement. NSAIDs were associated with higher rate of side effects. There was no strong evidence that any one NSAID or COX-2-selective NSAID is clinically superior to the others. NSAIDs were not superior to acetaminophen, but NSAIDs had more side effects. NSAIDs were not more effective that physiotherapy or spinal manipulation for acute low back pain. COX-2-selective NSAIDs had fewer side effects than nonselective NSAIDs.51
<>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.
<>If you have severe back pain, if your back pain has not improved after two weeks, or if you are experiencing any of the following symptoms, you should contact your doctor: numbness in your genital area; pins and needles or numbness/altered sensation down your legs; altered walking patterns, ie losing balance and falling over; unexplained weight loss or gain; or night pain.
<>Since I first started treating low back pain in 2000, there’s been an explosion of free online information about it — countless poor quality articles. Back in the day, we actually had to go to a doctor or buy a book to get shoddy back pain information — now it’s just a Google search away.234 Even many better articles still have serious “attitude” problems.5 But it’s worse than that: even professional back pain guidelines are often misleading.6 For instance, despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, it’s extremely common to incorrectly portray back pain as a “mechanical” problem, as if the spine is a fragile structure which breaks down and causes pain.7 This is based on decades old misconceptions about how backs work, and how pain works, which the medical world is only gradually learning to leave behind.
<>Endorphins are hormones made naturally in your body. What most people don't know is that they can be just as strong as any manufactured pain medication. When endorphins are released in your body, they help block pain signals from registering with your brain. Endorphins also help alleviate anxiety, stress, and depression, which are all associated with chronic back pain and often make the pain worse.
<>There are two kinds of over-the-counter pain relievers that frequently help with back pain: nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and acetaminophen. Both have some side effects, and some people may not be able to take them. Talk to your doctor before taking pain relievers. And don't expect medication alone to solve your pain problem. Studies show you'll probably need more than one type of treatment.

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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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