<>“The Pain Perplex,” a chapter in the book Complications, by Atul Gawande. Gawande’s entire book is worth reading, but his chapter on pain physiology is certainly the best summary of the subject I have ever read, and a terrific reminder that good writing for a general audience can be just as illuminating for professionals. Anyone struggling with a pain problem should buy the book for this chapter alone, though you are likely to enjoy the whole thing. Much of the chapter focuses on one of the most interesting stories of low back pain I’ve read, and it is a responsible and rational account — although Gawande, like most doctors, seems to be unaware of the clinical significance, or even existence, of myofascial trigger points.
<>Is “much” information really “just plain wrong”? I will establish this in the sections ahead with a steady supply of clearly explained references to the medical literature that patients can understand and professionals can respect. This extra layer of information in easy-to-use footnotes is available for any reader who wants to dig deeper and check my facts. For example, here’s a good start: In 2010, the Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery reported that “the quality and content of health information on the internet is highly variable for common sports medicine topics,” such as knee pain and low back pain — a bit of an understatement, really. Expert reviewers examined about 75 top-ranked commercial websites and another 30 academic sites. They gave each a quality score on a scale of 100. The average score? Barely over 50! For more detail, see Starman et al. BACK TO TEXT
<>**Please get an accurate diagnosis of your back pain.  If you want to know WHAT is causing your back pain we are experts at explaining what is causing your pain based on a thorough movement examination.  Then we can explain what exercises will help and what will make it worse!  We can help guide you with how to get in and out of bed and how to move around without making your back pain worse.    If you want peace of mind of what is causing the pain and what you can do about it we would love to help!
<>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
<>Epidural steroid injections are most commonly used in situations of radicular pain, which is a radiating pain that is transmitted away from the spine by an irritated spinal nerve. Irritation of a spinal nerve in the low back (lumbar radiculopathy) causes pain that goes down the leg. Epidural injections are also used to treat nerve compression in the neck (cervical spine), referred to as cervical radiculopathy, which causes pain.
<>Back pain is one of the most common reasons why people visit a health care provider. The good news is that the pain often goes away on its own, and people usually recover in a week or two. Many people want to stay in bed when their back hurts. For many years, getting bed rest was the normal advice. But current studies recommend no bed rest at all and stress that staying in bed longer than 48 hours not only won’t help but it may, in fact, actually delay your recovery. Here’s why:
<>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.
<>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
<>Whether it was brought on by arthritis, a structural or nerve problem, bending the wrong way, or lifting something a little too heavy, low back pain is frustrating as all get-out. But if you're struggling, know this: You're definitely not alone. Most people experience back pain at some point in their lives, and it's one of the most common reasons people book doctor's appointments and call out of work. It's also one of the leading causes of disability worldwide.
<>Doctors lack the skills and knowledge needed to care for most common aches, pains, and injury problems, especially the chronic cases, and even the best are poor substitutes for physical therapists. This has been proven in a number of studies, like Stockard et al, who found that 82% of medical graduates “failed to demonstrate basic competency in musculoskeletal medicine.” It’s just not their thing, and people with joint or meaty body pain should take their family doctor’s advice with a grain of salt. See The Medical Blind Spot for Aches, Pains & Injuries: Most physicians are unqualified to care for many common pain and injury problems, especially the more stubborn and tricky ones.
<>Paget's disease can be diagnosed on plain X-rays. However, a bone biopsy is occasionally necessary to ensure the accuracy of the diagnosis. Bone scanning is helpful to determine the extent of the disease, which can involve more than one bone area. A blood test, alkaline phosphatase, is useful for diagnosis andmonitoring response to therapy. Treatment options include aspirin, other anti-inflammatory medicines, pain medications, and medications that slow therate of bone turnover, such as calcitonin (Calcimar, Miacalcin), etidronate (Didronel), alendronate (Fosamax), risedronate (Actonel), and pamidronate (Aredia).
<>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.
<>There are a number of medications that can relieve back pain. Over-the-counter pain relievers, muscle relaxants, topical pain relievers and narcotics are all extremely effective in increasing your comfort. In addition, cortisone injections can decrease inflammation around the nerve roots and low doses of antidepressants can relieve certain types of chronic back pain.
<>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.
<>Dr. Jerome Groopman has written brilliantly about back pain, from personal experience. In How Doctors Think he puts back pain in the context of how medical thinking is influenced by marketing and money, giving us a somewhat chilling insiders’ view of the surgical treatment of back pain. In The Anatomy of Hope, he tells his own story of super severe back pain. It has a happy ending! Both books are also otherwise worthwhile. “Marketing, Money, and Medical Decisions,” a chapter in the book How doctors think, by Jerome Groopman. Groopman, writing from personal experience with chronic back pain and a spinal fusion surgery, discusses back pain as intelligently as any medical expert I’ve come across, but he does so in a way that will fascinate patients. In this chapter, his discussion of back pain is placed in the context of how medical thinking is influenced by marketing and money, giving us a somewhat chilling insiders’ view of the surgical treatment of back pain.
<>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.
<>Back pain can have many underlying reasons, but often no specific cause will be found and the pain will stop. This chapter will review many of the causes of back pain and proper evaluation and diagnosis. Please be sure to discuss your individual symptoms as well as the suggested treatments with your health-care professional to determine the appropriate diagnostic and treatment plan for your circumstances.
<>In all other cases, you can safely read this tutorial first. For instance, even if you have severe pain or numbness and tingling down your leg, you can safely read this first. Or, even if you have an obviously severe muscle tear from trying to lift your car or something, you can safely start here — rest and read. Your back is not as fragile as you probably think, and understanding why is a great starting place for healing in nearly all cases of low back pain.
<>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.
<>Limited bed rest. Once the mainstay of treatment for back pain, bed rest has fallen out of favor. Doctors now know it's better to keep moving, so that your muscles don't become stiff. Bed rest can still be useful relief from low back pain, particularly if your pain is so severe that it hurts to sit or stand. But try to limit it to a few hours at a time and for no more than one or two days.
<>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.
<>CBT: If you consult a psychotherapist for cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), your treatment may include stress management, behavioral adaptation, education, and relaxation techniques. CBT can lessen the intensity of back pain, change perceptions about levels of pain and disability, and even lift depression. The NIH considers CBT useful for relieving low back pain, citing studies that show CBT to be superior to routine care and placebo.
<>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.
<>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.
<>There is a significant overlap of nerve supply to many of the discs, muscles, ligaments, and other spinal structures, and it can be difficult for the brain to accurately sense which is the cause of the pain. For example, a degenerated or torn lumbar disc can feel the same as a pulled muscle – both creating inflammation and painful muscle spasm in the same area. Muscles and ligaments heal rapidly, while a torn disc may or may not. The time course of pain helps determine the cause.
<>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.
<>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.
<>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
<>Lumbar strain (acute, chronic): A lumbar strain is a stretch injury to the ligaments, tendons, and/or muscles of the low back. The stretching incident results in microscopic tears of varying degrees in these tissues. Lumbar strain is considered one of the most common causes of low back pain. The injury can occur because of overuse, improper use, or trauma. Soft-tissue injury is commonly classified as "acute" if it has been present for days to weeks. If the strain lasts longer than three months, it is referred to as "chronic." Lumbar strain most often occurs in people in their 40s, but it can happen at any age. The condition is characterized by localized discomfort in the low back area with onset after an event that mechanically stressed the lumbar tissues. The severity of the injury ranges from mild to severe, depending on the degree of strain and resulting spasm of the muscles of the low back. The diagnosis of lumbar strain is based on the history of injury, the location of the pain, and exclusion of nervous system injury. Usually, X-ray testing is only helpful to exclude bone abnormalities.
<>Arthritis: The spondyloarthropathies are inflammatory types of arthritis that can affect the lower back and sacroiliac joints. Examples of spondyloarthropathies include reactive arthritis (Reiter's disease), ankylosing spondylitis, psoriatic arthritis, and the arthritis of inflammatory bowel disease. Each of these diseases can lead to low back pain and stiffness, which is typically worse in the morning. These conditions usually begin in the second and third decades of life. They are treated with medications directed toward decreasing the inflammation. Newer biologic medications have been greatly successful in both quieting the disease and stopping its progression.
<>There are no systemic reviews for ultrasound.10 One small nonrandomized trial48 for patients with acute sciatica found ultrasonography superior to sham ultrasonography or analgesics for relief of pain. All patients were prescribed bed rest. For patients with chronic back pain, the small trials were contradictory to whether ultrasonography was any better than sham ultrasonography.2,52
<>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.
<>CBT: If you consult a psychotherapist for cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), your treatment may include stress management, behavioral adaptation, education, and relaxation techniques. CBT can lessen the intensity of back pain, change perceptions about levels of pain and disability, and even lift depression. The NIH considers CBT useful for relieving low back pain, citing studies that show CBT to be superior to routine care and placebo.
<>Most persons will experience acute low back pain during their lifetime. The first episode usually occurs between 20 and 40 years of age. For many, acute low back pain is the first reason to seek medical care as an adult. Pain can be moderate to severe and debilitating, causing anxiety. Many cases are self-limited and resolve with little intervention. However, 31 percent of persons with low back pain will not fully recover within six months,1 although most will improve. Recurrent back pain occurs in 25 to 62 percent of patients within one to two years, with up to 33 percent having moderate pain and 15 percent having severe pain.2–4
<>Prolotherapy treatments work by naturally promoting a minor inflammatory response near damaged connective tissue, promoting regeneration and the growth of new, healthier tissue in the process. These treatments have been used to effectively reduce or heal chronic musculoskeletal conditions of the back, such as herniated/bulging discs, arthritis, osteoarthritis or other chronic joint pains, and tendonitis that affects the lower body and causes compensations in the spine. (7) For the most benefits, it seems that prolotherapy works best when combined with other back pain treatments, such as spinal manipulation, exercise and in some cases medications when needed.
<>Bed Rest. Bed rest should not be recommended for patients with nonspecific acute low back pain. Moderate-quality evidence suggests that bed rest is less effective at reducing pain and improving function at three to 12 weeks than advice to stay active.46 Prolonged bed rest can also cause adverse effects such as joint stiffness, muscle wasting, loss of bone mineral density, pressure ulcers, and venous thromboembolism.37
<>Stretch. Don't sit slumped in your desk chair all day. Get up every 20 minutes or so and stretch the other way. "Because most of us spend a lot of time bending forward in our jobs, it's important to stand up and stretch backward throughout the day," Reicherter says. Don't forget to also stretch your legs. Some people find relief from their back pain by doing a regular stretching routine, like yoga.
<>Hyperlordosis (lordotic low back pain) is the second most common cause of adolescent low back pain.18,47 This condition is related to adolescent growth spurts when the axial skeleton grows faster than the surrounding soft tissue, resulting in muscular pain.55 Other causes of low back pain unique to children are vertebral endplate fractures and bacterial infection of the vertebral disk. Adolescents have weaker cartilage in the endplate of the outer annulus fibrosis, allowing avulsion and resulting in symptoms similar to a herniated vertebral disk.58 Additionally, the pediatric lumbar spine has blood vessels that traverse the vertebral bodies and supply the vertebral disk, increasing the chance of developing diskitis.51
<>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.
<>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
<>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.
<>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.
<>Another way to get lower back pain relief is to hook up with an expert in physical therapy, who will guide you in safe exercises that can strengthen and stretch the muscles. “This will prevent symptoms from worsening and further damage to the spine,” says Strassberg. She says that PTs address symptoms and target the underlying cause so that you can prevent future discomfort.
<>Although it may not sound like a back pain remedy, rest is vital when you are trying to relieve back pain naturally. Your muscles are in a state of shock and injury. Further insult will only make the pain worse and can lead to further injury of the musculature of the back. You shouldn’t go on complete bed rest, though. Yes, take it easy, but it is easy to lock up your back by not moving enough. Don’t engage in strenuous activity, but gentle stretching and light walking should be okay. Take time to sit or lay down regularly until your back pain remedies start to improve your situation. Don’t miss these lower back pain relief treatments that really work.
<>Acute low back pain can be defined as six to 12 weeks of pain between the costal angles and gluteal folds that may radiate down one or both legs (sciatica). Acute low back pain is often nonspecific and therefore cannot be attributed to a definite cause. However, possible causes of acute low back pain (e.g., infection, tumor, osteoporosis, fracture, inflammatory arthritis) need to be considered based on the patient's history and physical examination. Table 1 presents the differential diagnosis of acute low back pain.5,6
<>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
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<>Many researchers seem to believe that low back pain is a modern problem. For instance, Waddell writes, “Observations of natural history and epidemiology suggest that low-back pain should be a benign, self-limiting condition, that low back-disability as opposed to pain is a relatively recent Western epidemic … .” In 2008, Martin et al found that, “The estimated proportion of persons with back or neck problems who self-reported physical functioning limitations increased from 20.7%… to 24.7% … 1997 to 2005,” which certainly shows that it is a growing problem and therefore likely to be worse now than in the past. A Spanish study (Jiménez-Sánchez et al) showed that “serious” musculoskeletal complaints (including a great deal of back pain, presumably) increased significantly from 1993 to 2001. Finally, Harkness et al did a nice job in 2005 of comparing rates of musculoskeletal pain (including low back pain) 40 years apart in the northwest of England, and found a large increase. In his books, Sarno also strongly portrays low back pain as a modern problem — though he doesn’t defend it . It’s hard to say if back pain actually is a modern problem, or whether it just tends to be described as such. Remember that human beings have a strong tendency to sensationalize and dramatize! Harkness pointed out in her study that the appearance of an increase “could be partly explained by the ‘worried well’. The ‘worried well’ are those patients who are concerned about their health, and attend their GP to seek reassurance about their well-being.” This is a great example of how hard it is to really be sure of anything! BACK TO TEXT
<>Roughly 8 out of 10 people suffer from back pain at some point during their lives. Women, in particular, are prone to posture and back problems—thanks to toting around outrageously heavy purses, going through pregnancy, or giving one-hip rides to kids. Whether you’re in the midst of fighting the ache or just want to prevent it, here are some expert-endorsed quick-and-easy ways to wage your war.
<>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.
<>Subacute low back pain. Lasting between 6 weeks and 3 months, this type of pain is usually mechanical in nature (such as a muscle strain or joint pain) but is prolonged. At this point, a medical workup may be considered, and is advisable if the pain is severe and limits one’s ability to participate in activities of daily living, sleeping, and working.
<>Why so different? If you pay in United States dollars (USD), your credit card will convert the USD price to your card’s native currency, but the card companies often charge too much for conversion, well above the going exchange rate — it’s a way for them to make a little extra money. So I just offer my customers prices converted at slightly better than the current rate.
<>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.
<>Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) are the mainstay of medical treatment for the relief of back pain. Ibuprofen, naproxen, ketoprofen, and many others are available. No particular NSAID has been shown to be more effective for the control of pain than another. However, your doctor may switch you from one NSAID to another to find one that works best for you.
<>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.
<>Few people need surgery for back pain. If you have unrelenting pain associated with radiating leg pain or progressive muscle weakness caused by nerve compression, you might benefit from surgery. Otherwise, surgery usually is reserved for pain related to structural problems, such as narrowing of the spine (spinal stenosis) or a herniated disk, that hasn't responded to other therapy.

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