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.]
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:
Low back pain is one of the most common complaints on the planet. And you may wonder where to turn when you start experiencing some of those aches or twinges in the lower part of your back. Take heart. "In most cases, you won't need a specialist," says Dr. Robert Shmerling, a rheumatologist at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
Lower back pain may be debilitating at times, but there is some good news. “Most mild or acute lower back pain will dissipate with time and conservative treatment,” Koser says. One proven option is chiropractic care—the doctor can evaluate your spine and joints, and then offer treatments such as chiropractic manipulations of the spine, electric stimulation to decrease inflammation, and manual therapies to quell muscle tension, explains Koser.
Narcotic pain medications. Narcotic medications, also called opioids or painkillers, alter one’s perception of pain by weakening signals sent to the brain. Narcotic medications are most often used for treating intense, short-term pain, such as acute pain after an operation. Narcotics are rarely used to treat long-term pain, as they have many side effects and can easily become addictive.
Congenital bone conditions: Congenital causes (existing from birth) of low back pain include scoliosis and spina bifida. Scoliosis is a sideways (lateral) curvature of the spine that can be caused when one lower extremity is shorter than the other (functional scoliosis) or because of an abnormal architecture of the spine (structural scoliosis). Children who are significantly affected by structural scoliosis may require treatment with bracing and/or surgery to the spine. Adults infrequently are treated surgically but often benefit by support bracing. Spina bifida is a birth defect in the bony vertebral arch over the spinal canal, often with absence of the spinous process. This birth defect most commonly affects the lowest lumbar vertebra and the top of the sacrum. Occasionally, there are abnormal tufts of hair on the skin of the involved area. Spina bifida can be a minor bony abnormality without symptoms. However, the condition can also be accompanied by serious nervous abnormalities of the lower extremities.
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.
Patient Education. Patient education involves a discussion of the often benign nature of acute back pain and reassurance that most patients need little intervention for significant improvement. Patients should be advised to stay as active as possible, within pain limits; to avoid twisting and bending, particularly when lifting; and to return to normal activities as soon as possible. The goal is to reduce worry about back pain and to teach ways to avoid worsening of pain or pain recurrence.
Can inversion therapy help with back pain? Inversion therapy, where a person is held upside down for several minutes, is an alternative therapy for back pain. They may use gravity boots or an inversion table or chair to reduce the pressure on their spine. Evidence for the effectiveness of this technique is mixed. Learn more about the benefits and risks here. Read now
Battié MC, Videman T, Kaprio J, et al. The Twin Spine Study: contributions to a changing view of disc degeneration. Spine J. 2009;9(1):47–59. PubMed #19111259. “The once commonly held view that disc degeneration is primarily a result of aging and wear and tear from mechanical insults and injuries was not supported by this series of studies. Instead, disc degeneration appears to be determined in great part by genetic influences. Although environmental factors also play a role, it is not primarily through routine physical loading exposures (eg, heavy vs. light physical demands) as once suspected.” BACK TO TEXT
You don’t need to take my word for anything — you can just take the word of the many low back pain medical experts that I quote,12 and the hard evidence that their opinions are based on. At the same time, I am realistic about the limits of the science, much of which is pretty junky.13 My own credentials are somewhat beside the point. My decade of professional experience as a Registered Massage Therapist does help me understand and write about low back pain, but what really matters is that I refer to and explain recent scientific evidence, but without blindly trusting it.
Try taking one 250-milligram capsule of valerian four times a day. Some scientists claim that this herb’s active ingredient interacts with receptors in the brain to cause a sedating effect. Although sedatives are not generally recommended, valerian is much milder than any pharmaceutical product. (Valerian can also be made into a tea, but the smell is so strong-resembling overused gym socks-that capsules are vastly preferable.)
How old is your bed? You may be surprised to learn that the average life span of a mattress is less than 10 years. "There's no hard-and-fast rule," says Sean Mackey, chief of the division of pain medicine at Stanford University, "but if your mattress is sagging significantly or is more than 6 to 8 years old, I'd think about getting a new one. Something else to consider: a firm mattress may not do your back any favors, says Carmen R. Green, a physician at the University of Michigan Back & Pain Center. A number of studies over the years suggest that people with lower back pain who sleep on medium-firm mattresses do better than those with firm beds.
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.]
Bleeding in the pelvis is rare without significant trauma and is usually seen in patients who are taking blood-thinning medications, such as warfarin (Coumadin). In these patients, a rapid-onset sciatica pain can be a sign of bleeding in the back of the pelvis and abdomen that is compressing the spinal nerves as they exit to the lower extremities. Infection of the pelvis is infrequent but can be a complication of conditions such as diverticulosis, Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, pelvic inflammatory disease with infection of the Fallopian tubes or uterus, and even appendicitis. Pelvic infection is a serious complication of these conditions and is often associated with fever, lowering of blood pressure, and a life-threatening state.
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
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.
2010 — Like new: Rewritten. I’ve lost track and can’t be bothered to go back into the archives to figure it out for sure, but I think that this section was brand new (but never announced) late in 2009, and then this past week I gave it a substantial upgrade: it is now one of the best-referenced chapters in the book, and it says as much as probably needs to be said on the subject — or more! [Section: Core strengthening has failed to live up to the hopes and dreams of therapists and patients.]
A rub down can deliver real lower back pain relief. In a 2017 study, more than half of participants told researchers that a series of massage therapy sessions eased their backache. “The study can give primary care providers the confidence to tell patients with chronic low back pain to try massage if the patients can afford to do so,” co-author of the study Niki Munk, PhD, said in a press release. Here are 10 more things you should do if you wake up with back pain.
For example, ginger is a natural anti-inflammatory agent. It may help reduce inflammation associated with back pain, especially helpful after strenuous activities. Consider simmering fresh ginger root slices in hot water for about 30 minutes to prepare a spicy but soothing cup of tea. Capsaicin has also shown some promise for reducing pain. It’s the active ingredient in chili peppers. You can find it in both topical cream and oral supplement forms.
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
Cold can be applied to the low back with towels, gel packs, ice packs, and ice massage. Heat methods include water bottles and baths, soft packs, saunas, steam, wraps, and electric pads. There are few high-quality randomized controlled trials supporting superficial cold or heat therapy for the treatment of acute or subacute low back pain. A Cochrane review cited moderate evidence supporting superficial heat therapy as reducing pain and disability in patients with acute and subacute low back pain, with the addition of exercise further reducing pain and improved function.22 The effects of superficial heat seem strongest for the first week following injury.44
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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.
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.
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.
Exercise therapy appears to be slightly effective at decreasing pain and improving function in adults with chronic low back pain.30 In subacute low back pain, there is weak evidence that a graded activity program improves absenteeism.30 In acute low back pain, exercise therapy was no better than no treatment or conservative treatments. Exercise therapy using individualized regimens, supervision, stretching, and strengthening was associated with the best outcomes. The addition of exercise to other noninvasive therapies was associated with small improvements in pain and function.
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.
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.
Start facedown on a stability ball with feet resting on floor and core engaged so body forms a straight line. Keeping your back naturally arched, place hands behind ears and lower your upper body as far as you comfortably can. Squeeze glutes and engage back to and raise your torso until it’s in line with your lower body. Pause, then slowly lower your torso back to the starting position. Repeat for 12 to 15 reps.
The McKenzie method45 uses clinical examination to separate patients with low back pain into subgroups (postural, dysfunction, and derangement) to determine appropriate treatment. The goal is symptom relief through individualized treatment by the patient at home. The McKenzie method is not exclusively extension exercises; it emphasizes patient education to decrease pain quickly, restore function, minimize the number of visits to the clinic, and prevent recurrences.45 Two systemic reviews have compared the McKenzie method with different conclusions.11,43 Clare et al11 concluded that McKenzie therapy resulted in decreased short-term (less than 3 months) pain and disability when compared with NSAIDs, educational booklet, back massage with back care advice, strength training with therapist supervision, and spinal mobilization. Machado et al43 concluded that the McKenzie method does not produce clinically worthwhile changes in pain and disability when compared with passive therapy and advice to stay active for acute LBP.
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.
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.
Magnesium is the fourth most abundant mineral in the body. Involved in over 300 biochemical reactions, it helps maintain normal muscle and nerve function, keeps heart rhythm steady, supports a healthy immune system, and preserves bones strength. Magnesium also helps regulate blood sugar levels, promotes normal blood pressure, and is known to be involved in energy metabolism and protein synthesis.
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Medical Disclaimer: These products are not intended to diagnose, prevent, treat, or cure any disease or ailment. The material on this site is provided for informational purposes only and is not medical advice. Always consult your physician before beginning any exercise program.
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