The diagnosis of low back pain involves a review of the history of the illness and underlying medical conditions as well as a physical examination. It is essential that a complete story of the back pain be reviewed including injury history, aggravating and alleviating conditions, associated symptoms (fever, numbness, tingling, incontinence, etc.), as well as the duration and progression of symptoms. Aside from routine abdomen and extremity evaluations, rectal and pelvic examinations may eventually be required as well. Further tests for diagnosis of low back pain can be required including blood and urine tests, plain film X-ray tests, CAT scanning, MRI scanning, bone scanning, and tests of the nerves such as electromyograms (EMG) and nerve conduction velocities (NCV).
Data Sources: We searched PubMed for the key term acute low back pain; this term was also searched with the following key terms: medications, nonsteroidals, muscle relaxants, opioids, red flags, differential diagnosis, exercise, McKenzie, spine stabilization, traction, acupuncture, heat, ice, advice, cost, manipulation, chiropractic care, brace, bed rest, massage. In addition, we searched the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Clinical Evidence, Essential Evidence Plus, and the National Guideline Clearinghouse. Search dates: April 2011 and May 2, 2011.
That being said, the best medicine for dealing with back pain is (drum roll please)…. EXERCISE! And before you jump to the conclusion that the fitness professional is turning to exercise yet again, there are just a few other professionals who would agree, namely Harvard Medical School, The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons and the Mayo Clinic. All three organizations list exercise as their number one solution for low back pain prevention. In addition, the American Council on Exercise recommends specific dos and don'ts for exercising with low back pain. Yes, the recommendations for exercise seem to be overwhelming when it comes to dealing with back pain. However, the type of exercise you perform is going to make a difference and when it comes to exercising to relieve back pain there are two important goals:
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.
The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality has identified 11 red flags that doctors look for when evaluating a person with back pain. The focus of these red flags is to detect fractures (broken bones), infections, or tumors of the spine. Presence of any of the following red flags associated with low back pain should prompt a visit to your doctor as soon as possible for complete evaluation.
As with any sort of pain, it's crucial to figure out the source so you can properly treat it. Sharp or stabbing pain that extends beyond your low back or is accompanied by symptoms like abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting, could be signs of various other conditions and definitely warrant a trip to the doctor. If you have a history of lower back injuries or disc problems, always see your doctor before trying any new exercise.
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.
Three systemic reviews3,6,13 analyzed spinal manipulation therapy (SMT) for low back pain, including (1) high-velocity, low-amplitude manipulation of the spinal joints slightly beyond their passive range of motion; (2) high-velocity, low-amplitude technique rotating the thigh and leg; (3) mobilization within passive range of motion; and (4) instrument-based manipulations. There is moderate evidence of short-term pain relief with acute low back pain treated with SMT.6 Chronic low back pain showed moderate improvement with SMT, which is as effective as NSAIDs and more effective than physical therapy in the long term.6 Patients with mixed acute and chronic low back pain had better pain outcomes in the short and long terms compared with McKenzie therapy, medical care, management by physical therapists, soft tissue treatment, and back school.6 SMT was more effective in reducing pain and improving daily activities when compared with sham therapy.3 Dagenais13 found SMT effective in pain reduction in the short-, intermediate-, and long-term management of acute low back pain. However, a Cochrane review in 2004 on SMT in acute and chronic low back pain concluded that there was no difference in pain reduction or ability to perform daily activities with SMT or standard treatments (medications, physical therapy, exercises, back school, or the care of a general practitioner).3
It is not clear whether athletes experience low back pain more often than the general public. Because of a aucity of trials with athlete-specific populations, recommendations on treatments must be made from reviews of treatments for the general population. Several large systemic reviews and Cochrane reviews have compiled evidence on different modalities for low back pain. Superficial heat, spinal manipulation, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications, and skeletal muscle relaxants have the strongest evidence of benefit.
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.
“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.
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.
Medications. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are often first-line therapy for low back pain. Low-quality evidence suggests that they are effective for short-term symptom relief, compared with placebo.16 No patient characteristics at baseline can predict the success of NSAID therapy.17 Moderate evidence suggests that no one NSAID is superior, and switching to a different NSAID may be considered if the first is ineffective. Whether NSAIDs are more effective than acetaminophen is unknown, but the addition of an NSAID to acetaminophen therapy is no more beneficial than acetaminophen alone.16,18
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.
To ensure a thorough examination, you will be asked to put on a gown. The doctor will watch for signs of nerve damage while you walk on your heels, toes, and soles of the feet. Reflexes are usually tested using a reflex hammer. This is done at the knee and behind the ankle. As you lie flat on your back, one leg at a time is elevated, both with and without the assistance of the doctor. This is done to test the nerves, muscle strength, and assess the presence of tension on the sciatic nerve. Sensation is usually tested using a pin, paper clip, broken tongue depressor, or other sharp object to assess any loss of sensation in your legs.
I like to kick off a topic with an example of a terrible website about it, just for the chuckle and a teachable moment. ThePain.net is one of the worst I’ve seen: a large, stale, ugly thing by Pekka Palin, MD. There are hours of terrible reading there! Dozens of blandly composed, shallow, rambling, and frequently irrational mini-articles on every imaginable pain subject, all 100% unreferenced, laid out in huge blocks of text without a subheading for many screens (a typographic travesty). There’s soooo much badness, but I really got a chuckle out of this perfectly pointless phrase: “The most common term used for general, temporary low back pain is lumbago.” Now “lumbago” means “back pain” (see the definition of lumbago on Wikipedia), so Dr. Obvious has helpfully explained that the cause of back pain is, er, back pain. The Internet, at your service!
Return-to-play (RTP) guidelines are difficult to standardize for low back pain because of a lack of supporting evidence. A commonly encountered question is, can athletes play through pain? There is no simple answer to this question. For example, an athlete with suspected spondylolysis is generally advised that he or she should not play through pain, while athletes with chronic low back pain from muscular or ligamentous strain may continue to practice, exercise, and compete. However, there is little evidence to support either of these approaches. These athletes should always be monitored for their safety.
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
Transcutaneous electric nerve stimulation (TENS): TENS provides pulses of electrical stimulation through surface electrodes. For acute back pain, there is no proven benefit. Two small studies produced inconclusive results, with a trend toward improvement with TENS. In chronic back pain, there is conflicting evidence regarding its ability to help relieve pain. One study showed a slight advantage at one week for TENS but no difference at three months and beyond. Other studies showed no benefit for TENS at any time. There is no known benefit for sciatica.
Spinal manipulation: The U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality recognizes spinal manipulation by chiropractors and osteopaths as effective for acute low-back pain. Its effectiveness for treating chronic back pain is less well established. Some researchers suggest that early manipulative treatment for acute back pain may prevent chronic problems from developing. Other doctors warn against some chiropractic manipulations, particularly those that involve rapid twisting of the neck. Spinal manipulation can be considered a form of conservative care for the treatment of acute and chronic back pain as it is not invasive and does not employ prescription medications.
Before you dive into the best exercises for lower back pain, it’s important to understand that there are a multitude of reasons why an individual would experience muscle soreness. In the case of this article, we’ll focus on the most common one: sitting. Over time, prolonged periods of sitting can manipulate our posture, resulting in specific muscles becoming weaker.
Preliminary research suggests that hypnotherapy may be of some use in the treatment of low back pain. For instance, a pilot study published in the International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis found that a four-session hypnosis program (combined with a psychological education program) significantly reduced pain intensity and led to improvements in mood among patients with chronic low back pain.
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.
30. Gellhorn AC, Chan L, Martin B, Friedly J. Management patterns in acute low back pain: the role of physical therapy [published ahead of print November 19, 2010]. Spine (Phila Pa 1976). http://journals.lww.com/spinejournal/Abstract/publishahead/Management_Patterns_in_Acute_Low_Back_Pain__The.99251.aspx (subscription required). Accessed May 2, 2011.
Try acupuncture. Research suggests that acupuncture can help reduce chronic low back pain. One recent review showed that actual acupuncture was more effective than simulated acupuncture or no treatment in reducing pain. It's not entirely known how acupuncture regulates pain; however, one theory suggests acupuncture helps trigger the release of pain reducing chemicals in the body (like endorphins and natural opioids). Back pain is one of the most common reasons patients first try acupuncture and many find sustained relief.
Expert opinion guidelines on RTP time frames have been published for lumbar spine conditions.20 Lumbar strains should achieve full range of motion before RTP. Patients with spondylolysis and spondylolisthesis (grade 1) should rest 4 to 6 weeks and then demonstrate full range of motion and pain-free extension before RTP.22 Athletes with herniated lumbar disks should rest 6 to 12 weeks following surgical treatment, while those with spinal fusion should wait 1 year to return to activity.20 Many surgeons advise against return to contact sports following spinal fusion.20 Iwamoto et al32 reviewed conservative and surgical treatments in athletes with lumbar disc herniation and time to return to previous level of sports activity. Seventy-nine percent of conservatively treated athletes returned in an average of 4.7 months, while 85% of those treated with microdiscectomy returned in 5.2 to 5.8 months. Sixty-nine percent of percutaneous discectomies returned in 7 weeks to 12 months.32
“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.
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
Physical Therapy. Physical therapists often recommend the McKenzie method or spine stabilization exercises for the treatment of low back pain. The McKenzie method is described at http://www.mckenziemdt.org/approach.cfm, and a video demonstration is available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wBOp-ugJbTQ. The McKenzie method has been shown to be slightly more effective than other common low back pain treatments; however, the difference is not clinically significant,26,27 and evidence on its effect on disability is conflicting.26,27 There also do not appear to be good long-term benefits with the McKenzie method, other than decreased need for health care services.27 Spine stabilization exercises have been shown to decrease pain, disability, and risk of recurrence after a first episode of back pain.28
Are you a serial sitter? Unfortunately, nowadays most of us tend to be. When you lead an inactive lifestyle where you spend a lot of your time — professionally or personally — seated, your posture, and eventually your health take the brunt of the blow. We drive to work to sit at our desks only to return home and relax by sitting on our sofas. This excessive amount of sitting over a period of time can have detrimental effects on our well-being and, in particular, our posture and spine health, eventually leading to lower back issues.
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.
A great exercise for the lower tummy muscles is shown in the image below. It is extremely gentle and also very effective. Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Breathe in and as you breathe out bring one knee in towards your chest and as you breathe in return the foot to the floor. Repeat this exercise six to eight times on each leg.
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.
Data Sources: We searched PubMed for the key term acute low back pain; this term was also searched with the following key terms: medications, nonsteroidals, muscle relaxants, opioids, red flags, differential diagnosis, exercise, McKenzie, spine stabilization, traction, acupuncture, heat, ice, advice, cost, manipulation, chiropractic care, brace, bed rest, massage. In addition, we searched the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Clinical Evidence, Essential Evidence Plus, and the National Guideline Clearinghouse. Search dates: April 2011 and May 2, 2011.
Return-to-play (RTP) guidelines are difficult to standardize for low back pain because of a lack of supporting evidence. A commonly encountered question is, can athletes play through pain? There is no simple answer to this question. For example, an athlete with suspected spondylolysis is generally advised that he or she should not play through pain, while athletes with chronic low back pain from muscular or ligamentous strain may continue to practice, exercise, and compete. However, there is little evidence to support either of these approaches. These athletes should always be monitored for their safety.
Exercise is the foundation of chronic back pain treatment. It’s one of the first treatments you should try under the guidance of your physician and spine physical therapist. However, the same set of exercises doesn’t work for everyone, says Nava. The exercises have to be tailored to your specific symptoms and condition. Maintaining the exercise routine at home is also a big part of success.
Sometimes, however, the conditions that cause acute back pain can lead to more chronic and serious problems. Clues to a different and more serious cause include: persistent pain, pain and numbness that radiate down both the legs, bothersome pain at night plus fever, weight loss and swelling of the joints. If you experience any of these, it's important you consult a doctor who can examine you carefully, X-ray your back and perform some lab tests. Possible causes of pain in these cases could include ankylosing spondylitis or an infection or tumor of the spine.
These powerful painkillers may not be all that: In a study published in JAMA, fast-acting opioids like morphine and oxycodone were no better than non-opioid medications (like Tylenol or an NSAID) in improving function in moderate to severe back pain. Talk to your doctor about the option that’s best for you. Don’t miss these 24 things pain doctors won’t tell you.
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.
There are many additional sources of pain, including claudication pain (from stenosis) myelopathic pain, neuropathic pain, deformity, tumors, infections, pain from inflammatory conditions (such as rheumatoid arthritis or ankylosing spondylitis), and pain that originates from another part of the body and presents in the lower back (such as kidney stones, or ulcerative colitis).
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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