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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.
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.
“Opioid medications generally shouldn’t be used as the first, the only or the long-term line of treatment for chronic back pain,” recommends Nava. Many of them are addictive and don’t address the underlying cause of your pain. Opioids should be prescribed only after a thorough exam by a specialist and if other drugs have failed to provide relief. If you find yourself relying on opioids to get through the day, it may be time to seek a second opinion.
2011 — Updated: Added scientific cases studies, examples, pictures and video of true dislocation and abnormal anatomy to help drive home the point that even significant spinal joint dysfunction can be surprisingly harmless … never mind subtle joint problems. [Section: Spinal manipulative therapy (SMT): Adjustment, manipulation, and cracking of the spinal joints.]
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.
Chronic back pain is straining both physically and emotionally. To manage the frustration, irritability, depression and other psychological aspects of dealing with chronic pain, you may get referred to a rehabilitation psychologist. This specialist may recommend meditation, yoga, tai chi and other cognitive and relaxation strategies to keep your mind from focusing on pain.
This stretch is designed to help lengthen the piriformis muscle over time. This muscle is often the source of sciatica, or radiating leg pain. Sitting with a straight back, cross your left leg over your right leg placing your foot next to your thigh and tuck your right leg in towards your buttocks. Place your right arm on your leg as pictured and slowly ease into a stretch. Be sure to keep your back straight and chest lifted. Hold for 20 seconds and alternative sides, three times.
A neurologist, a doctor specializing in treatment of the nervous system. "Back pain is commonly associated with lower-extremity symptoms, such as numbness and tingling. These symptoms can also be caused by neurological conditions that are not spine-related, such as multiple sclerosis. Neurologists are great at sorting this out and offering solutions," says Dr. Kowalski.
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Most back pain can be successfully treated without surgery. If conservative back pain treatment fails, or if you have difficulty standing or walking, you may be a candidate for surgery. Dr. Stieber is a leader in the use of minimally-invasive surgical techniques with advanced expertise in restoring mobility to the back and helping his New York patients return to activity and an improved quality of life.
Acupuncture. Based in ancient Chinese medicine, acupuncture stimulates points on the body thought to correct the body’s “qi,” or life force. It is believed that proper qi decreases pain and discomfort in the body. During a session, thin needles are placed in the skin for about an hour. Acupuncture has been shown to provide significant pain relief for some people.3
Too much tension and tightness can cause back pain. "Our goal in increasing flexibility is to put an equal load throughout the body from the feet all the way up to the head,” Davis says. “One good exercise is to sit on the edge of the bed with one leg extended and the other one on the floor. Give your hamstrings a stretch by leaning forward while keeping your back in a neutral position.”
Aquatic therapy: Aquatic therapy and exercise can also improve flexibility and decrease pain for some people with chronic low back problems. It is especially beneficial for those patients who cannot tolerate land-based physical therapy.This is because the unique properties of water often make it a safe environment for exercising a sore back, providing gentle resistance, comfort, and relaxation. Fear of pain associated with movement is a major limiting factor for rehabilitation and exercises therapy. The support and warmth of the water enables a person to gradually introduce daily exercise into their treatment.
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
Did you know that aside from coughs and respiratory infections, back pain is the most common reason for seeing a doctor in the United States? More than 85 percent of Americans will experience back pain at some point in their life, and back pain is the leading cause of disability worldwide. Yet surgery is rarely needed to treat back pain. So, what’s the answer? Why is it such a problem and, more importantly, how can you prevent it from becoming a problem for you? This article will help answer some of those questions as well as give you some of the best exercises to beat back pain.
Lower back pain and vaginal discharge: What to know Lower back pain and vaginal discharge are common on their own. When they occur together, this can point to specific medical issues. In this article, learn about seven possible causes of both lower back pain and vaginal discharge. We also describe risk factors, diagnostic methods, and treatment options. Read now
A neurologist, a doctor specializing in treatment of the nervous system. "Back pain is commonly associated with lower-extremity symptoms, such as numbness and tingling. These symptoms can also be caused by neurological conditions that are not spine-related, such as multiple sclerosis. Neurologists are great at sorting this out and offering solutions," says Dr. Kowalski.
I am a science writer and a former Registered Massage Therapist with a decade of experience treating tough pain cases. I was the Assistant Editor of ScienceBasedMedicine.org for several years. I’ve written hundreds of articles and several books, and I’m known for readable but heavily referenced analysis, with a touch of sass. I am a runner and ultimate player. • more about me • more about PainScience.com
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.
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.
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
Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.
Several systemic reviews have found skeletal muscle relaxants effective for short-term symptomatic relief in acute and chronic low back pain.7,56,65,66 However, the incidence of drowsiness, dizziness, and other side effects is high.66 There is minimal evidence on the efficacy of the antispasticity drugs (dantrolene and baclofen) for low back pain.66
Looking for a way to adjust your desk chair without buying a new one? Nikki Walter, a personal trainer in North Dakota, recommended a washable orthopedic seat cushion. “Since it’s made of gel memory foam, you can squish it into a bag, take it with you, and pull it out when you need it," Walter said. "Watch it bounce back to life and relieve your stress in seconds!”
Long periods of inactivity in bed are no longer recommended, as this treatment may actually slow recovery. Spinal manipulation for periods of up to one month has been found to be helpful in some patients who do not have signs of nerve irritation. Future injury is avoided by using back-protection techniques during activities and support devices as needed at home or work.
Talking about your back pain with a therapist may bring some relief. In a UK study, back pain sufferers who had 90 minutes of group cognitive behavioral therapy a week for six weeks reported less pain during the treatment. (Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on solving problems by changing thoughts and behavior.) A year later, 59% said their pain was totally cured, compared to just 31% in the group that did not go through therapy.
A There is no paper book. I sell digital reading material only: web-based tutorials — for instant delivery, and many benefits “traditional” e-books can’t offer, especially hassle-free lending and free updates for life. Health care information changes fast! You get free lifetime access to the always-current “live” web version and offline reading is no problem.
Despite the high prevalence of low back pain and the significant burden to the athletes, there are few clearly superior treatment modalities. Superficial heat and spinal manipulation therapy are the most strongly supported evidence-based therapies. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications and skeletal muscle relaxants have benefit in the initial management of low back pain; however, both have considerable side effects that must be considered. Athletes can return to play once they have recovered full range of motion and have the strength to prevent further injury.
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.
Sitting at a desk for eight (or more) hours a day can really do a number on your back. Make sure to sit with your back against your chair (get a lumbar pillow if you chair doesn’t allow this) and both feet flat on the floor. Another option: Try using a stability ball as your desk chair like many Health staffers do—good posture is a must just to stay on the thing. Start off slow (20 minutes at a time), and if it feels good, stick with it.
Infection of the discs (septic discitis) and bone (osteomyelitis) is extremely rare. These conditions lead to localized pain associated with fever. The bacteria found when these tissues are tested with laboratory cultures include Staphylococcus aureus and Mycobacterium tuberculosis (TB bacteria). TB infection in the spine is called Pott's disease. These are each very serious conditions requiring long courses of antibiotics. The sacroiliac joints rarely become infected with bacteria. Brucellosis is a bacterial infection that can involve the sacroiliac joints and is usually transmitted in raw goat's milk.
Shingles (herpes zoster) is an acute infection of the nerves that supply sensation to the skin, generally at one or several spinal levels and on one side of the body (right or left). Patients with shingles usually have had chickenpox earlier in life. The herpes virus that causes chickenpox is believed to exist in a dormant state within the spinal nerve roots long after the chickenpox resolves. In people with shingles, this virus reactivates to cause infection along the sensory nerve, leading to nerve pain and usually an outbreak of shingles (tiny blisters on the same side of the body and at the same nerve level). The back pain in patients with shingles of the lumbar area can precede the skin rash by days. Successive crops of tiny blisters can appear for several days and clear with crusty inflammation in one to two weeks. Patients occasionally are left with a more chronic nerve pain (postherpetic neuralgia). Treatment can involve symptomatic relief with lotions, such as calamine, or medications, such as acyclovir (Zovirax), for the infection and pregabalin (Lyrica) or lidocaine (Lidoderm) patches for the pain.
Imaging is not warranted for most patients with acute low back pain. Without signs and symptoms indicating a serious underlying condition, imaging does not improve clinical outcomes in these patients.9–11 Even with a few weaker red flags, four to six weeks of treatment is appropriate before consideration of imaging studies.8–10 If a serious condition is suspected, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is usually most appropriate. Computed tomography is an alternative if MRI is contraindicated or unavailable.10 Clinical correlation of MRI or computed tomography findings is essential because the likelihood of false-positive results increases with age.12–14 Radiography may be helpful to screen for serious conditions, but usually has little diagnostic value because of its low sensitivity and specificity.10
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.
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.
There are numerous reasons why you may be saddled with lower back pain, says Melanie Strassberg, PT, DPT, clinical director of Professional Physical Therapy in New Rochelle, New York: Muscle strains and spasms, a herniated disc, degenerative disc disease, spinal stenosis, and osteoarthritis are just a handful. Given the wide range of causes, your doctor will need to uncover the source during a medical examination before you can find the best lower back pain relief. These are 10 other common reasons your back is hurting.
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.
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
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.
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
A 2007 Cochrane review of opioids for chronic low back pain found that tramadol was more effective than placebo for pain relief and improving function.16 The 2 most common side effects of tramadol were headaches and nausea. One trial comparing opioids to naproxen found that opioids were significantly better for relieving pain but not improving function. Despite the frequent use of opioids for long-term management of chronic LBP, there are few high-quality trials assessing efficacy. The benefits of opioids for chronic LBP remain questionable. There is no evidence that sustained-release opioid formulations are superior to immediate-release formulations for low back pain. Long-acting opioids did not differ in head-to-head trials.9 Opioids are banned by the World Anti-doping Association.70
A: It's possible, but very unlikely, that you have arthritis of the spine, but the most common cause of acute low back pain in people your age is back strain. This condition is caused by strain to the muscles or ligaments supporting the spine or a herniation of the lumbar disks (cartilage pads that cushion the vertebrae). It is not always possible to differentiate between the two causes, nor is it necessary. In the vast majority of cases, the pain improves and subsides over several weeks.
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.
Low back pain is the fifth most common reason for all physician visits in the United States.17,29 Approximately one quarter of US adults report having low back pain lasting at least 1 whole day in the past 3 months,17 and 7.6% report at least 1 episode of severe acute low back pain within a 1-year period.8 The prevalence rates of low back pain in athletes range from 1% to 40%.5 Back injuries in the young athlete are a common phenomenon, occurring in 10% to 15% of participants.18 It is not clear if athletes experience low back pain more often than the general population. Comparisons of wrestlers,27 gymnasts,60 and adolescent athletes40 have found back pain more common versus age-matched controls. Other comparisons of athletes and nonathletes have found lower rates of low back pain in athletes than nonathletes.67
Radicular pain. This type of pain can occur if a spinal nerve root becomes impinged or inflamed. Radicular pain may follow a nerve root pattern or dermatome down into the buttock and/or leg. Its specific sensation is sharp, electric, burning-type pain and can be associated with numbness or weakness (sciatica). It is typically felt on only one side of the body.
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.]
Imaging is not warranted for most patients with acute low back pain. Without signs and symptoms indicating a serious underlying condition, imaging does not improve clinical outcomes in these patients.9–11 Even with a few weaker red flags, four to six weeks of treatment is appropriate before consideration of imaging studies.8–10 If a serious condition is suspected, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is usually most appropriate. Computed tomography is an alternative if MRI is contraindicated or unavailable.10 Clinical correlation of MRI or computed tomography findings is essential because the likelihood of false-positive results increases with age.12–14 Radiography may be helpful to screen for serious conditions, but usually has little diagnostic value because of its low sensitivity and specificity.10
A: It's possible, but very unlikely, that you have arthritis of the spine, but the most common cause of acute low back pain in people your age is back strain. This condition is caused by strain to the muscles or ligaments supporting the spine or a herniation of the lumbar disks (cartilage pads that cushion the vertebrae). It is not always possible to differentiate between the two causes, nor is it necessary. In the vast majority of cases, the pain improves and subsides over several weeks.
In both younger and older patients, vertebral fractures take weeks to heal with rest and pain relievers. Compression fractures of vertebrae associated with osteoporosis can also be treated with a procedure called vertebroplasty or kyphoplasty, which can help to reduce pain. In this procedure, a balloon is inflated in the compressed vertebra, often returning some of its lost height. Subsequently, a "cement" (methymethacrylate) is injected into the balloon and remains to retain the structure and height of the body of the vertebra. Pain is relieved as the height of the collapsed vertebra is restored.
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.
In both younger and older patients, vertebral fractures take weeks to heal with rest and pain relievers. Compression fractures of vertebrae associated with osteoporosis can also be treated with a procedure called vertebroplasty or kyphoplasty, which can help to reduce pain. In this procedure, a balloon is inflated in the compressed vertebra, often returning some of its lost height. Subsequently, a "cement" (methymethacrylate) is injected into the balloon and remains to retain the structure and height of the body of the vertebra. Pain is relieved as the height of the collapsed vertebra is restored.
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.
2017 — Major upgrade: The section has been re-written and expanded significantly, with a key change in position. After reviewing the same scientific papers previously cited more carefully, I decided that they were much less promising than I originally thought. The section has flip-flopped from optimism to pessimism about nerve blocks without a single change in what’s actually cited, just a change in the level of diligence in interpreting the science. [Section: Diagnostic numbing of facet joints.]
Keep moving. "Our spines are like the rest of our body -- they're meant to move," says Reicherter. Keep doing your daily activities. Make the beds, go to work, walk the dog. Once you're feeling better, regular aerobic exercises like swimming, bicycling, and walking can keep you -- and your back -- more mobile. Just don't overdo it. There's no need to run a marathon when your back is sore.
Start on your hands and knees, and tighten your stomach muscles. Lift and extend one leg behind you. Keep hips level. Hold for 5 seconds, and then switch to the other leg. Repeat 8 to 12 times for each leg, and try to lengthen the time you hold each lift. Try lifting and extending your opposite arm for each repetition. This exercise is a great way to learn how to stabilize the low back during movement of the arms and legs. While doing this exercise don't let the lower back muscles sag. Only raise the limbs to heights where the low back position can be maintained.
Gentle stretches, walking, and periodically standing up at your desk can help stabilize your spine and prevent muscle imbalances. And despite how hard it is to imagine doing Downward-Facing Dog with a bad back, yoga can work in your favor, too. A 2013 review of studies found strong evidence it can help beat lower back pain. Any type works; one to consider is the restorative viniyoga style.
I was an alternative health professional myself for many years — a Registered Massage Therapist, trained in Canada (which has unusually good training standards). Of course, some of my colleagues in alternative medicine were diligent students of medical science. However, in my experience, most were certainly not — indeed, many lacked even the most basic knowledge of how medical science works or how to keep current about recent discoveries with clinical implications. BACK TO TEXT
Steroids: Oral steroids can be of benefit in treating acute sciatica. Steroid injections into the epidural space have not been found to decrease duration of symptoms or improve function and are not currently recommended for the treatment of acute back pain without sciatica. Benefit in chronic pain with sciatica remains controversial. Injections into the posterior joint spaces, the facets, may be beneficial for people with pain associated with sciatica. Trigger point injections have not been proven helpful in acute back pain. Trigger point injections with a steroid and a local anesthetic may be helpful in chronic back pain. Their use remains controversial.
It may seem strange to see a psychologist for back pain. But studies show that cognitive behavioral therapy is very effective in the short and long term at helping chronic back pain. For example, CBT may target how people with back pain think about physical activity -- and why they may be avoiding it -- to help change the way they respond to being active. People who do CBT have reported significant decreases in pain and disability.

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