<>Welcome to one of the Internet’s saner sources of information about chronic low back pain.[NIH] This is a book-length tutorial, a guide to a controversial subject for both patients and professionals. It is not a sales pitch for a miracle cure system. It’s heavily referenced, but the tone is often light, like this footnote about being “shot by the witch.”1 I will offer some surprising ideas — underestimated factors in low back pain — but I won’t claim that all back pain comes from a single cause or cure. It’s just a thorough tour of the topic, the myths and misconceptions, and the best (and worst) low back pain treatment ideas available.
<>2010 — Like new: Rewritten. I’ve lost track and can’t be bothered to go back into the archives to figure it out for sure, but I think that this section was brand new (but never announced) late in 2009, and then this past week I gave it a substantial upgrade: it is now one of the best-referenced chapters in the book, and it says as much as probably needs to be said on the subject — or more! [Section: Core strengthening has failed to live up to the hopes and dreams of therapists and patients.]
<>This movement is helpful to stretch tight abdominal muscles and the lower back. Start by lying on your stomach with your legs extended and with palms planted on either side of your head with your forearms and elbows flat on the ground. Slowly, push your body upwards, so your weight is resting on your forearms. Be sure to keep your hips on the ground. Once you reach a comfortable position that gently stretches your abdominal muscles and lower back, hold for 10 seconds. Slowly return to starting position and repeat five times. If you have more flexibility in your lower back, try straightening your arms.
<>Infection of the discs (septic discitis) and bone (osteomyelitis) is extremely rare. These conditions lead to localized pain associated with fever. The bacteria found when these tissues are tested with laboratory cultures include Staphylococcus aureus and Mycobacterium tuberculosis (TB bacteria). TB infection in the spine is called Pott's disease. These are each very serious conditions requiring long courses of antibiotics. The sacroiliac joints rarely become infected with bacteria. Brucellosis is a bacterial infection that can involve the sacroiliac joints and is usually transmitted in raw goat's milk.
<>Free second tutorial! When you buy this tutorial, you will also get Save Yourself from Trigger Points and Myofascial Pain Syndrome! — a $1995 value. The low back pain tutorial makes the case that trigger points are a major factor in low back pain. However, trigger point therapy is not an easy skill to master — and it’s an enormous subject. PainScience.com publishes a separate tutorial about trigger point therapy. It’s offered as a free, essential companion to the low back pain tutorial. As a pair, they give you everything you need to know about helping most cases of low back pain.
<>Mechanical pain. By far the most common cause of lower back pain, mechanical pain (axial pain) is pain primarily from the muscles, ligaments, joints (facet joints, sacroiliac joints), or bones in and around the spine. This type of pain tends to be localized to the lower back, buttocks, and sometimes the top of the legs. It is usually influenced by loading the spine and may feel different based on motion (forward/backward/twisting), activity, standing, sitting, or resting.
<>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.
<>Heat/ice therapy. Heat from a warm bath, hot water bottle, electric heating pad, or chemical or adhesive heat wraps can relax tense muscles and improve blood flow. Increased blood flow brings nutrients and oxygen that muscles need to heal and stay healthy. If the low back is painful due to inflammation, ice or cold packs can be used to reduce swelling. It’s important to protect the skin while applying heat and ice to prevent tissue damage.
<>2011 — Major update: Major improvements to the table of contents, and the display of information about updates like this one. Sections now have numbers for easier reference and bookmarking. The structure of the document has really been cleaned up in general, making it significantly easier for me to update the tutorial — which will translate into more good content for readers. Care for more detail? Really? Here’s the full announcement.
<>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.
<>A 2007 Cochrane review of opioids for chronic low back pain found that tramadol was more effective than placebo for pain relief and improving function.16 The 2 most common side effects of tramadol were headaches and nausea. One trial comparing opioids to naproxen found that opioids were significantly better for relieving pain but not improving function. Despite the frequent use of opioids for long-term management of chronic LBP, there are few high-quality trials assessing efficacy. The benefits of opioids for chronic LBP remain questionable. There is no evidence that sustained-release opioid formulations are superior to immediate-release formulations for low back pain. Long-acting opioids did not differ in head-to-head trials.9 Opioids are banned by the World Anti-doping Association.70
<>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.
<>Start on your hands and knees, and tighten your stomach muscles. Lift and extend one leg behind you. Keep hips level. Hold for 5 seconds, and then switch to the other leg. Repeat 8 to 12 times for each leg, and try to lengthen the time you hold each lift. Try lifting and extending your opposite arm for each repetition. This exercise is a great way to learn how to stabilize the low back during movement of the arms and legs. While doing this exercise don't let the lower back muscles sag. Only raise the limbs to heights where the low back position can be maintained.
<>Muscle relaxants: Muscle spasm is not universally accepted as a cause of back pain, and most relaxants have no effect on muscle spasm. Muscle relaxants may be more effective than a placebo (sugar pill) in treating back pain, but none has been shown to be superior to NSAIDs. No additional benefit is gained by using muscle relaxants in combination with NSAIDs over using NSAIDs alone. Muscle relaxants cause drowsiness in up to 30% of people taking them. Their use is not routinely recommended.
<>Despite the high prevalence of low back pain and the significant burden to the athletes, there are few clearly superior treatment modalities. Superficial heat and spinal manipulation therapy are the most strongly supported evidence-based therapies. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications and skeletal muscle relaxants have benefit in the initial management of low back pain; however, both have considerable side effects that must be considered. Athletes can return to play once they have recovered full range of motion and have the strength to prevent further injury.
<>Heat/ice therapy. Heat from a warm bath, hot water bottle, electric heating pad, or chemical or adhesive heat wraps can relax tense muscles and improve blood flow. Increased blood flow brings nutrients and oxygen that muscles need to heal and stay healthy. If the low back is painful due to inflammation, ice or cold packs can be used to reduce swelling. It’s important to protect the skin while applying heat and ice to prevent tissue damage.
<>Stretching your lower back is going to be really helpful in alleviating your lower back pain. Kneel on all fours, with your knees directly under your hips and hands directly under your shoulders. Ensure your spine is in a neutral position. Keep your head in line with your spine, your shoulders back and avoid locking your elbows. Take a big deep breath in and as you breathe out slowly take your bottom backwards towards your heels. Hold the stretch for 20-30 seconds. As you breathe in bring your body up onto all fours again. Repeat six to eight times.
<>Among the issues a little downward dog can ease—such as anxiety, stress—yoga may also bring lower back pain relief, particularly if the pain is long-lasting. A 2017 study found that attending weekly yoga for three months was just as effective as physical therapy for alleviating symptoms, and far better than back advice alone. Yoga-goers were also more likely to stop taking medication after a year. Learn more about how yoga eases lower back pain.
<>For short-term pain relief, over-the-counter pain relievers including acetaminophen and NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) are sometimes suggested. The most common NSAIDs include aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), and naproxen (Aleve). Potential side effects of NSAIDs include stomach and liver problems. Talk to your doctor if you don't find relief after taking the recommended dose.
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<>To improve your workstation, position your computer monitor at eye level, at least 20 inches away from your face. Invest in a comfortable chair with armrests and good lower back support. Keep your head and neck in line with your torso, your shoulders relaxed. While you work, keep elbows close to your body, and your forearms and wrists parallel to the floor.
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<>30. Gellhorn AC, Chan L, Martin B, Friedly J. Management patterns in acute low back pain: the role of physical therapy [published ahead of print November 19, 2010]. Spine (Phila Pa 1976). http://journals.lww.com/spinejournal/Abstract/publishahead/Management_Patterns_in_Acute_Low_Back_Pain__The.99251.aspx (subscription required). Accessed May 2, 2011.
<>The prevention of back pain is, itself, somewhat controversial. It has long been thought that exercise and an all-around healthy lifestyle would prevent back pain. This is not necessarily true. In fact, several studies have found that the wrong type of exercise such as high-impact activities may increase the chance of suffering back pain. Nonetheless, exercise is important for overall health and should not be avoided. Low-impact activities such as swimming, walking, and bicycling can increase overall fitness without straining the low back.
<>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
<>In addition to strengthening the core muscles, it's also important to address any mobility problems, says Jacque Crockford, M.S., C.S.C.S., exercise physiology content manager at American Council on Exercise, which can sometimes be what's causing pain. If specific movements like twisting or bending or extending your spine feel uncomfortable, there may be mobility (flexibility) issues at play. Doing some gentle stretching (like these yoga poses) might help. (If it gets worse with those stretches, stop and see a doctor.)
<>Aquatic therapy is essentially physical therapy in a pool. Instead of using weights for resistance, patients use the resistance of the water. Studies show it may help alleviate lower back pain. In one 2013 study, sedentary adults who underwent aquatic therapy five times a week for two months saw reductions in pain and increases in quality of life. One smaller study found that aquatic therapy also helped pregnant women who were experiencing aching lower backs.
<>Exercise therapy appears to be slightly effective at decreasing pain and improving function in adults with chronic low back pain.30 In subacute low back pain, there is weak evidence that a graded activity program improves absenteeism.30 In acute low back pain, exercise therapy was no better than no treatment or conservative treatments. Exercise therapy using individualized regimens, supervision, stretching, and strengthening was associated with the best outcomes. The addition of exercise to other noninvasive therapies was associated with small improvements in pain and function.
<>Your core muscles—not just your abdominals, but the muscles that wrap around your midsection—support your spine and lower back. And your core, hips, glutes, and hamstrings together form one big stability machine, so weakness in any one of those muscles forces the others to take up the slack. If you have weak hip and gluteal muscles, for example, as they become fatigued during a run, your lower back is forced to work harder to keep you upright and stable, and you become vulnerable to injury.
<>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.
<>"Having excess weight pulling on your back all day (except when you're lying down) is just bad news for your back," says Lauri Grossman, DT, a licensed chiropractor in private practice in New York City. "Often times, when people who wrestle with back pain for a lifetime lose a few pounds, they find that the pain that they've taken a million medications for and a million vitamins for just goes away." If you're having trouble shedding extra pounds, consider consulting with a registered dietitian or personal trainer.
<>Music therapy is a low-cost natural therapy that may reduce some of the stress of chronic pain in conjunction with other treatments. Studies find that it may reduce the disability, anxiety, and depression associated with chronic pain. It is thought to help because it can shift attention away from the unpleasant sensations of pain, and it may cause the release of endorphins or changes in catecholamine levels.

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