<>To relieve pain all over instead of just in one problem area, Dr. Mark Liponis, the chief medical officer at Canyon Ranch in Tucson, Arizona, recommended an inversion table that provides massage. While it may be expensive for some, he said it could be worth it for managing a chronic pain issue. "Over time can help relieve chronic neck and back pain,” Liponis added.
<>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.
<>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.
<>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.
<>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
<>COX-2 inhibitors, such as celecoxib (Celebrex), are more selective members of NSAIDs. Although increased cost can be a negative factor, the incidence of costly and potentially fatal bleeding in the gastrointestinal tract is clearly less with COX-2 inhibitors than with traditional NSAIDs. Long-term safety (possible increased risk for heart attack or stroke) is currently being evaluated for COX-2 inhibitors and NSAIDs.
<>My original inspiration for this tutorial was Dr. John Sarno’s 1984 book Mind over back pain. (His more recent Healing back pain makes too many empty promises. See my review.) However, as much as I respect Dr. Sarno’s early work, there are at least three reasons why this tutorial is better than his books: (1) I make a much more airtight case against the conventional medical myths of back pain than Dr. Sarno does; (2) I also build a much better case for the real causes of back pain, heavily referencing more credible sources than Dr. Sarno does; (3) and I offer many more practical suggestions than Dr. Sarno does, instead of focusing exclusively on the psychological factors. Although I have less experience and education than Dr. Sarno, I do have a lot more hands-on experience (and the useful perspective of a journalist). BACK TO TEXT
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<>“Stretching of the back and legs can help maintain or improve movement for everyday functions. For example, being limber will help you lift objects off the floor or put on shoes without increased stress to the back,” says Jiang. “Additionally, physical activity [like stretching] can help increase back resilience, so that one can perform more activities without increased pain.”
<>To understand various causes of low back pain, it is important to appreciate the normal design (anatomy) of the tissues of this area of the body. Important structures of the low back that can be related to symptoms in this region include the bony lumbar spine (vertebrae, singular = vertebra), discs between the vertebrae, ligaments around the spine and discs, spinal cord and nerves, muscles of the low back, internal organs of the pelvis and abdomen, and the skin covering the lumbar area.
<>Kneeling Lunge Stretch. Starting on both knees, move one leg forward so the foot is flat on the ground, keeping weight evenly distributed through both hips (rather than on one side or the other). Place both hands on the top of the thigh, and gently lean the body forward to feel a stretch in the front of the other leg. This stretch affects the hip flexor muscles, which attach to the pelvis and can impact posture if too tight.
<>Spinal Manipulation and Chiropractic Techniques. Low-quality evidence shows that spinal manipulation may be more effective than sham treatments in the short-term reduction of pain (less than six weeks), but no more effective in reducing disability.18,20,42,43 There is little evidence that manipulation is cost-effective for treating acute low back pain.25
<>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
<>Injections. If other measures don't relieve your pain, and if your pain radiates down your leg, your doctor may inject cortisone — an anti-inflammatory medication — or numbing medication into the space around your spinal cord (epidural space). A cortisone injection helps decrease inflammation around the nerve roots, but the pain relief usually lasts less than a few months.
<>Back pain is a symptom. Common causes of back pain involve disease or injury to the muscles, bones, and/or nerves of the spine. Pain arising from abnormalities of organs within the abdomen, pelvis, or chest may also be felt in the back. This is called referred pain. Many disorders within the abdomen, such as appendicitis, aneurysms, kidney diseases, kidney infection, bladder infections, pelvic infections, and ovarian disorders, among others, can cause pain referred to the back. Normal pregnancy can cause back pain in many ways, including stretching ligaments within the pelvis, irritating nerves, and straining the low back. Your doctor will have this in mind when evaluating your pain.
<>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.
<>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
<>Adherence to exercise is one of the most important factors for long term pain relief. However, maintaining exercise can be difficult for a variety of reasons, including worsened pain with activity, economic constraints, and low motivation.1 In one study, the most common reason for lack of adherence to exercise was increased pain caused by activity.1 When this is the case, an exercise professional can incorporate pain reduction and management as primary parts of the exercise program.
<>"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.
<>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.
<>Most of us spend a good part of our day sitting down, which may be more harmful than you realize. You can minimize the impact by maintaining good posture. Correct posture in a chair means having all the bones in your spine lined up neatly, like a stack of perfectly aligned blocks. You should keep your feet flat on the floor and your computer keyboard within easy reach so you’re not leaning forward or slumping. This is part of proper office ergonomics.
<>Writers go on and on about how grateful they are for the support they had while writing one measly book, but this website is a much bigger project. PainScience.com was originally created in my so-called “spare time” with a lot of assistance from family and friends. Thanks to my wife for countless indulgences large and small; to my parents for (possibly blind) faith in me, and much copyediting; and to friends and technical mentors Mike, Dirk, Aaron, and Erin for endless useful chats, repeatedly saving my ass, and actually building many of the nifty features of this website.
<>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.
<>Massage: There's an upside to your discomfort: It's a legit excuse to get a weekly massage. One study found that people who did had less lower back pain and disability after 10 weeks, compared with the control group—and general relaxation rubdowns worked just as well as structural massage targeted at specific parts of the body. Osteopathic and chiropractic therapies—in which joints and muscles get stretched and repositioned—have been shown to work, too. In a study published in the Annals of Family Medicine
<>Nerve blocks, epidural steroid injections, nerve ablations and other types of injection-based procedures are available for chronic back pain. They are used when the source of the pain is known and can sometimes help rule out certain causes if the treatment doesn’t work. Injections may stop or lessen pain for a certain period of time, but are not intended as long-term solutions and shouldn’t be used in isolation.
<>Turns out that the committees that write these things do not necessarily know the science! One of the best reviews of back pain research ever published — Machado 2009, more on this one later — found something really interesting: “treatment recommendations from recent clinical guidelines do not align with the results of this meta-analysis.” In fact, quite a few disproven pain treatments are still cheerfully recommended in otherwise sensible professional guidelines. Eek. BACK TO TEXT
<>Over-the-counter pain medications. The most common over-the-counter (OTC) medications are aspirin (e.g. Bayer), ibuprofen (e.g. Advil), naproxen (e.g. Aleve), and acetaminophen (e.g. Tylenol). Aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen are anti-inflammatory medicines, which alleviate low back pain caused by a swollen nerves or muscles. Acetaminophen works by interfering with pain signals sent to the brain.
<>A diagnosis of sciatica is usually made during a history and physical examination. Your doctor will ask you about your pain. During the physical exam, you may be asked to lift your leg while lying on your back — shooting pain down the back of your leg while in this position is a common sign of sciatica. Your doctor will also check the strength and reflexes in your leg.
<>Activity modification. One variant of resting is to stay active but avoid activities and positions that aggravate the pain. For example, if long periods of sitting in a car or at a desk make the pain worse, then set a timer to get up every 20 minutes and walk around or gently stretch. If standing makes the pain worse, avoid chores that require standing such as washing dishes at the sink. Avoiding, or minimizing, activities and positions that worsen the pain will help prevent or reduce painful back spasms and allow for a better healing environment.
<>Stay strong. Once your low back pain has receded, you can help avert future episodes of back pain by working the muscles that support your lower back, including the back extensor muscles. "They help you maintain the proper posture and alignment of your spine," Reicherter says. Having strong hip, pelvic, and abdominal muscles also gives you more back support. Avoid abdominal crunches, because they can actually put more strain on your back.
<>Try an over-the-counter pain reliever. Anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, Nuprin), and naproxen sodium (Aleve, Anaprox, Naprosyn) can help reduce back pain. Acetaminophen (Actamin, Panadol, Tylenol) is another over-the-counter option for pain management. Be sure to check with your doctor or pharmacist about any interactions over-the-counter pain relievers may have with other medications you are taking. People with a history of certain medical conditions (such as ulcers, kidney disease, and liver disease) should avoid some medicines.
<>Ongoing pain can wreak havoc on your life, affecting your cherished relationships, finances, and your ability to get stuff done at work and at home. It can also interrupt your sleep and affect your mood. Because many other problems commonly occur along with chronic lower back pain, anything you can do for yourself that is a natural anti-depressant will help.
<>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!]
<>A pinched nerve causes pain, numbness, or tingling in the affected area due to pressure on a nerve. Caral tunnel and sciatica are two examples of conditions caused by a pinched nerve. A pinched nerve is diagnosed by taking a patient history and performing a physical examination. Electromyography may be performed. Treatment for a pinched nerve depends on the underlying cause.
<>Back pain is a health concern for most people in the United States at some point in their lives and one of the most common reasons people miss work or visit the doctor. More than 80 percent of Americans will experience low back pain, and this health problem costs the United States over $100 billion each year, most of which is a result of lost wages. 

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