<>This myth of “mechanical” failure of the low back has many unfortunate consequences, such as unnecessary fusion surgeries — a common and routinely ineffective procedure — and low back pain that lasts for years instead of months or weeks. The seriousness of chronic low back pain is often emphasized in terms of the hair-raising economic costs of work absenteeism, but it may well be far worse than that — a recent Swedish study shows that it probably even shortens people lives.8 The stakes are high. “Tragedy” is not hyperbole.
<>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.
<>This tutorial has been continuously, actively maintained and updated for 14 years now, staying consistent with professional guidelines and the best available science. The first edition was originally published in September 2004, after countless hours of research and writing while I spent a month taking care of a farm (and a beautiful pair of young puppies) in the Okanagan.
<>I apply a MythBusters approach to health care (without explosives): I have fun questioning everything. I don’t claim to have The Answer for low back pain. When I don’t know, I admit it. I read scientific journals, I explain the science behind key points (there are more than 460 footnotes here, drawn from a huge bibliography), and I always link to my sources.
<>Physical activity. Exercise helps build strong, flexible muscles that will be less prone to injury. It can also help the healing process for an aching back, prevent problems in the future, and improve function. Work with your doctor to develop an exercise program, or seek a referral to another health professional who can. A good program typically includes the three major forms of exercise: aerobic activity, strength training, and flexibility exercises.
<>While it’s true that some lower back pain just cannot be fixed, it’s also true that many “incurable” cases do turn out to be surprisingly treatable. People who believed for years that their pain was invincible have found relief. Not always, and often not completely — but sometimes any relief is far better than nothing. How can extremely stubborn pain finally ease up? Simple: because many cases weren’t truly stubborn to begin with, despite all appearances. So many health professionals are poorly prepared to treat low back pain that patients can easily go for months or even years without once getting good care and advice. When they finally get it, it’s hardly surprising that some patients finally get some relief from their pain.
<>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.
<>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.
<>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.”
<>“I went in not knowing what the problem was, I hurt and I figured I was out of place. I was seeing another chiropractor but they were only adjusting me and there was no improvement - I was worsening. I went to see Dr. Riley and in one visit he found that I was weak in my left glute and my body was overcompensating and causing me pain. It took four visits working on strengthening that side and I'm pain free.”
<>As part of your exercise routine, you may want to consider doing yoga regularly for lower back pain relief. One study of over 960 people with low back pain found that those who completed a 12-week yoga program experienced greater improvements in back function and reduced pain compared to controls who did not participate. (4) There’s even evidence that mindfulness meditation, often practiced in some form with yoga, can also help people deal with chronic back pain more effectively. (5)
<>Cauda equina syndrome is a medical emergency whereby the spinal cord is directly compressed. Disc material expands into the spinal canal, which compresses the nerves. A person would experience pain, possible loss of sensation, and bowel or bladder dysfunction. This could include inability to control urination causing incontinence or the inability to begin urination.
<>MRI (or magnetic resonance imaging) scan is a radiology technique which uses magnetism, radio waves, and a computer to produce images of body structures. MRI scanning is painless and does not involve X-ray radiation. Patients with heart pacemakers, metal implants, or metal chips or clips in or around the eyes cannot be scanned with MRI because of the effect of the magnet.
<>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.
<>Even more tragic is that good information exists, and not just here in this book: many medical experts do “get it” (the doctors doing the actual research). But they have fought a long battle trying to spread the word to their own medical colleagues on the front lines of health care. A 2010 report in Archives of Internal Medicine showed just how grim it is:
<>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
<>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 recent double-blind randomized placebo-controlled study of 546 patients with acute low back pain (less than 4 weeks) with radiculopathy compared LLLT and nimesulide to nimesulide alone to sham LLLT. Treatment with LLLT and nimesulide improved movement, with more significant reduction in pain intensity and disability and with improvement in quality of life, compared with patients treated only with drugs or placebo LLLT.38
<>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.
<>The bony lumbar spine is designed so that vertebrae "stacked" together can provide a movable support structure while also protecting the spinal cord from injury. The spinal cord is composed of nervous tissue that extends down the spinal column from the brain. Each vertebra has a spinous process, a bony prominence behind the spinal cord, which shields the cord's nervous tissue from impact trauma. Vertebrae also have a strong bony "body" (vertebral body) in front of the spinal cord to provide a platform suitable for weight bearing of all tissues above the buttocks. The lumbar vertebrae stack immediately atop the sacrum bone that is situated in between the buttocks. On each side, the sacrum meets the iliac bone of the pelvis to form the sacroiliac joints of the buttocks.
<>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!]
<>High-quality evidence shows that individual patient education of greater than two hours is more effective than no education or less-intense education for pain that persists for four weeks or more.23 Moderate-quality evidence shows that less-intense individual education and advice to stay active have small benefits and are at least as effective as other back pain interventions.23,24 It is unclear whether patient education and advice for patients with acute low back pain are cost-effective.25
<>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.
<>Start on all fours. Lower onto your forearms with shoulders directly over elbows. Step feet back into a plank position. Draw your shoulders down and back—not hunched. Engage abdominal muscles tight to keep hips in line with shoulders so your body forms a long, straight line. Squeeze legs and glutes for support. Hold this position for 45 to 60 seconds. Gradually add time as your core gets stronger. Repeat for 3 to 5 reps.
<>Regular updates are a key feature of PainScience.com tutorials. As new science and information becomes available, I upgrade them, and the most recent version is always automatically available to customers. Unlike regular books, and even e-books (which can be obsolete by the time they are published, and can go years between editions) this document is updated at least once every three months and often much more. I also log updates, making it easy for readers to see what’s changed. This tutorial has gotten 134 major and minor updates since I started logging carefully in late 2009 (plus countless minor tweaks and touch-ups).
<>Testimonials on health care websites reek of quackery, so publishing them has always made me a bit queasy. But my testimonials are mostly about the quality of the information I’m selling, and I hope that makes all the difference. So here’s some highlights from the kind words I’ve received over the years … plus some of the common criticisms I receive, at the end. These are all genuine testimonials, mostly received by email. In many cases I withold or change names and identifying details.
<>Dr. Stieber strongly believes that a personalized treatment approach delivers optimal relief and a superior patient experience. As such, your back pain treatment regimen will be tailored based on the severity, duration and underlying cause of your symptoms. For most of our NYC patients, the solution will involve a blend of approaches, including medication, physical therapy and, in rare cases, surgery.
<>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.
<>A common pose in yoga, the restful child’s pose can help you relax your body. Position yourself on the floor on hands and knees with your knees just wider than hip distance apart. Turn your toes in to touch and push your hips backwards bending your knees. Once you reach a comfortable seated position, extend your arms forward fully and allow your head to fall forward into a relaxation position. Hold this pose for 20 seconds and slowly return to starting position. Repeat three times. For modification if you have shoulder pain, place your arms on either side of your body, extending towards your feet.
<>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
<>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
<>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.
<>Special thanks to some professionals and experts who have been particularly inspiring and/or directly supportive: Dr. Rob Tarzwell, Dr. Steven Novella, Dr. David Gorski, Sam Homola, DC, Dr. Harriet Hall, Dr. Stephen Barrett, Dr. Greg Lehman, Dr. Jason Silvernail, Todd Hargrove, Nick Ng, Alice Sanvito, Dr. Chris Moyer, Dr. Brian James, Bodhi Haraldsson, Diane Jacobs, Adam Meakins, Sol Orwell, Laura Allen, Dr. Ravensara Travillian, Dr. Neil O’Connell, Tony Ingram, Dr. Jim Eubanks … oh dear, there’s so many more still …
<>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. 
<>Spines haven’t changed in the last century,21 and yet modern civilization suffers from a great plague of low back pain.2223 Yet the real causes of most back pain are obscured by medical mythology and misunderstanding.24 Before I discuss what does cause most low back pain, it’s important to talk about what does not cause it. In this section, I will challenge the mythology in just a few paragraphs, supported by over thirty references to the best scientific information available — references you can check for yourself. This is quite different than most sources of patient-focused low back pain information, which tend to avoid discussing the evidence.
<>Application of Ice or Heat. Low-quality evidence shows that in the first five days of acute low back pain, the use of heat treatments may be more effective for reducing pain and disability than nonheat wraps, NSAIDs, or acetaminophen, but shows no difference between heat application and McKenzie therapy at seven days.32 A low-quality study found that heat therapy in conjunction with education or NSAIDs is more effective than education or NSAIDs alone at 14 days.33 Ice and heat therapy have similar analgesic effects.32
<>Situated between the bones of the spine, intervertebral disks act as cushions and shock absorbers. If they become damaged and start to bulge out between the bones of your lower back (a condition known as a slipped or herniated disk), they can press on your sciatic nerve roots and cause sciatica. Herniated disks are the most common cause of sciatica, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
<>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.
<>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).
<>Lie on your back with knees bent and just your heels on the floor. Push your heels into the floor, squeeze your buttocks, and lift your hips off the floor until shoulders, hips, and knees are in a straight line. Hold about 6 seconds, and then slowly lower hips to the floor and rest for 10 seconds. Repeat 8 to 12 times. Avoid arching your lower back as your hips move upward. Avoid overarching by tightening your abdominal muscles prior and throughout the lift.
<>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.
<>2016 — Science update: There is now a good scientific concensus on the subject of spinal fusion, thanks to papers like Mannion 2013 and Hedlund 2016. Putting a spotlight on this called for some serious revision and editing. The whole section is greatly improved. [Section: The back surgery placebo problem, and how it limits our knowledge of the effectiveness of back surgeries.]
<>After your initial visit for back pain, it is recommended that you follow your doctor's instructions as carefully as possible. This includes taking the medications and performing activities as directed. Back pain will, in all likelihood, improve within several days. Do not be discouraged if you don't achieve immediate improvement. Nearly everyone improves within a month of onset of the pain.
<>Dr. Richard Deyo, one of the great myth busters of low back pain research, believes that “low back pain is second to upper respiratory problems as a symptom-related reason for visits to a physician” — only the common cold causes more complaints. Hart et al puts low back pain in fifth place (lower because Hart oddly excludes chronic low back pain). Chronic low back pain is usually the kind that this book will examine. Andersson writes: “Although the literature is filled with information about the prevalence and incidence of back pain in general, there is less information about chronic back pain … .” Indeed, it is almost impossible to measure how much chronic low back pain there is: for every time that acute low back pain is the main reason for a visit to a physician, how many times does a patient mention low back pain as a secondary problem? Or sees an alternative health care professional about it instead? (Answer: pretty danged often.) So it’s actually possible that low back pain is the single most common reason that people seek help. BACK TO TEXT
<>Lie on your back with knees bent and just your heels on the floor. Push your heels into the floor, squeeze your buttocks, and lift your hips off the floor until shoulders, hips, and knees are in a straight line. Hold about 6 seconds, and then slowly lower hips to the floor and rest for 10 seconds. Repeat 8 to 12 times. Avoid arching your lower back as your hips move upward. Avoid overarching by tightening your abdominal muscles prior and throughout the lift.
<>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.)
<>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.
<>Pain in the lower back or low back pain is a common concern, affecting up to 80% of Americans at some point in their lifetime. Many will have more than one episode. Low back pain is not a specific disease, rather it is a symptom that may occur from a variety of different processes. In up to 85% of people with low back pain, despite a thorough medical examination, no specific cause of the pain can be identified.
<>I have had life-altering low back pain for more than 8 years. I’ve had the fusions at L5-S1. Prior to my first surgery I spent 18 months seeking relief through physical therapy, intense massage therapy, myofascial “release” therapy, a visit to Dr. Sarno himself, injections, dry needling of trigger points and massage from a physiatrist, chiropractic work and more. For years between surgeries I tried core strengthening, acupuncture, PT, more massage, two rhizotomies, and visits to the Mayo clinic and Johns Hopkins’ pain management in-patient programs. So I’ve been through a lot. And your book is the first thing I’ve read that dispassionately and entertainingly dissects all of the options and offers some realistic, pragmatic suggestions. It’s a gift to all back pain sufferers.
<>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.
<>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.
<>Rest: The basic treatment for relieving acute back pain from strain or minor injury is a limited period of rest for 24 to 72 hours. An ice pack can be helpful, as can aspirin or another nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) to reduce pain and inflammation. Do not give aspirin to a child aged 18 years or younger because of the increased risk of Reye syndrome. After the inflammation subsides, applying heat can soothe cramped muscles and strained connective tissue.
<>According to Susi Hately, owner of Functional Synergy, Inc., in Alberta, Canada, and author of several international best-selling yoga books, yoga can be very therapeutic for people with back pain as well. A review of scientific studies published in 2013 in the Clinical Journal of Pain found strong evidence that yoga can help reduce chronic low back pain. Yoga may help improve back pain by loosening tight muscles, building strength and range of motion, and improving breathing, explains Hately. Yoga also focuses on relaxation, which may help to relax your muscles as well as reduce pain perception.

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