<>Nearly everyone suffers from some type of back pain at some point in their lives. But no matter when it appears or what may have caused it, back pain can be a real, well … pain to deal with. The good news? There are several simple things you can do to ease pain and keep your back in good condition. The following tips can help you get on the way toward feeling better.
<>2010 — Upgraded: Section now includes discussion of that bizarre and already infamous paper in the New England Journal of Medicine (see Berman). I also make an important new point: exactly why acupuncture placebos are such a problem for low back pain patients in particular. [Section: The fascinating case of acupuncture, formerly a contender in low back pain therapy, but which has now miserably failed well-designed scientific tests.]
<>Taking NSAIDs like ibuprofen will help decrease inflammation in the short term. Couple that with heat and ice therapy to stop spasms, recommends Laser Spine Institute chiropractor, Robert Koser, DC. He adds that what you eat also makes a difference. A healthy, anti-inflammatory diet will turn down pain and help you lose weight, as excess pounds put a strain on your spine.
<>Topical treatments: One potential concern with dietary supplements is that some may interfere with medications you’ve been prescribed to treat back pain or other health conditions. For this reason, Grossman suggests topical treatments: “Gels and creams can be very helpful and won't interfere with supplements or medications,” she explains. “They're generally inexpensive, too.”
<>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!]
<>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.
<>Purchase full access to this tutorial for USD$1995. Continue reading this page immediately after purchase. A second tutorial about muscle pain is included free. See a complete table of contents below. Most content on PainScience.com is free.?Almost everything on this website is free: about 80% of the site by wordcount (well over a million words), or 95% of the bigger pages (>1000 words). This page is only one of 8 big ones that have a price tag. There are also hundreds of free articles, including several about low back pain. But this page goes into extreme detail, and selling access to it keeps the lights on and allows me to publish everything else (without ads).
<>Poor posture and crookedness is another popular scapegoat — it seems obvious that posture is relevant. Many professionals assume that back pain is some kind of postural problem that you can exercise your way clear of. Unfortunately, the evidence shows that no kind of exercise, not even the most hard-core core strengthening, has any significant effect on low back pain.
<>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.
<>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]
<>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
<>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
<>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.
<>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.
<>Numerous powerlifters over the years have come back following ‘career-ending injuries’ to set all-time personal records. Donnie Thompson is the only man to total 3,000 lbs (1,265 lb squat, 950 lb bench, 785 lb deadlift). Many people don’t know this, but several years back Donnie suffered a horrendous back injury and herniated three discs. He could barely walk, but he got out of bed and rehabbed himself every day. Within three months he was back to heavy squatting and setting personal records. Got that? Setting personal records three months following an injury that herniated 3 discs!
<>Lower back pain can be mild to very severe depending on its underlying causes, how long it’s been left untreated and the state of someone’s overall health. The University of Maryland Medical Center states that several important risk factors for lower back problems include family history of back pain, smoking or using tobacco, being overweight or obese, being female, being anxious or depressed, and either doing too much physical work or living a sedentary lifestyle.
<>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.
<>Do you want to prevent back pain? Try a few basic exercises to stretch and strengthen your back and supporting muscles. Repeat each exercise a few times, then increase the number of repetitions as the exercise gets easier. If you've ever hurt your back or have other health conditions, such as osteoporosis, consult your doctor before doing these exercises.
<>To diagnose back pain -- unless you are totally immobilized from a back injury -- your doctor probably will test your range of motion and nerve function and touch your body to locate the area of discomfort. Sometimes blood and urine tests are performed to make sure that the back pain is not caused by an infection or other more widespread medical problem.
<>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.
<>Medication: If back pain keeps you from normal daily activities, your doctor can help by recommending or prescribing pain medications. Over-the-counter painkillers such as Tylenol, aspirin, or NSAIDs -- such as ketoprofen, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), and naproxen (Aleve) -- can be helpful. For severe pain, your doctor may prescribe prescription strength anti-inflammatories/pain medicines or may prefer to prescribe a short-term combination of opioid (narcotic) and acetaminophen medications such as Vicodin or Percocet. Some doctors also prescribe muscle relaxants. But beware, some of these medications have a direct effect on the brain and often cause drowsiness.
<>Laboratory tests such as complete blood count with differential, erythrocyte sedimentation rate, and C-reactive protein level may be beneficial if infection or bone marrow neoplasm is suspected. These tests may be most sensitive in cases of spinal infection because lack of fever and a normal complete blood count are common in patients with spinal infection.15 Because laboratory testing lacks specificity, MRI with and without contrast media and, in many cases, biopsy are essential for accurate diagnosis.15
<>Sleep disturbances are common among people with chronic back pain, and not getting enough quality sleep may actually worsen inflammation and pain. For a better night's sleep, invest in a good mattress and experiment with different sleeping positions. Adding an extra pillow under your body can help maintain the natural curve in your spine. If you’re a back sleeper, try putting the pillow under both knees; for stomach sleepers, try under your pelvis. If you sleep on your side, sleeping with a pillow between the knees may help.
<>If you have an attack of lower-back pain that is severe, continuous and not improving, assessment and treatment by a health care professional who focuses on the back or other musculoskeletal problems may help. These practitioners may use both active and passive techniques to help you feel better. Examples of passive techniques that may be used to get you moving include:
<>No, the lower back pain isn't in your head. But what is in your head could be making it worse. "Fear, anxiety, and catastrophizing can amplify pain," says Mackey. "People often get swept up in thoughts like This will never get better." Because brain circuits that process pain overlap dramatically with circuits involved with emotions, panic can translate into actual pain. Cognitive-behavioral therapy helps you recognize and reframe negative thoughts. Deep breathing can help, too, as can simply shining a light on dark thoughts. "Start by accepting that you have pain," Mackey says. "Then say to yourself, It will get better."
<>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.
<>You know that calcium is key for strong bones, but Japanese researchers have identified something else you need: vitamin K. It’s believed that the vitamin, found in broccoli, spinach, and other dark leafy greens, helps calcium deposit in the bones, making them denser. The stronger your bones, the stronger your whole body—and the lower your chances of an injury that could cause back pain.
<>That’s a huge topic, but here’s one simple example of an extremely common problem with back pain science: control groups that don’t control. Rather than comparing a treatment to a good, carefully selected placebo, most studies use a comparison to a treatment that is allegedly neutral, underwhelming, or placebo-ish. That makes the results hard to interpret: if each works about the same, it could mean that the treatments are equally effective … or equally ineffective! So much back pain science has this problem — or any one of a dozen other weak points — that you can effectively ignore at least 80% of all back pain research, because it’s so far from the last word on anything. Good science is essential to solving these problems, but really good studies are also difficult to design and rare. BACK TO TEXT
<>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.”
<>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.

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