This tutorial has been continuously, actively maintained and updated for 14 years now, staying consistent with professional guidelines and the best available science. The first edition was originally published in September 2004, after countless hours of research and writing while I spent a month taking care of a farm (and a beautiful pair of young puppies) in the Okanagan.
Three small higher quality trials found that systemic corticosteroids were not clinically beneficial compared with placebo when given parenterally or as a short oral taper for acute or chronic sciatica.21,28,49 With acute low back pain and a negative straight-leg raise test, no difference in pain relief through 1 month was found between a single intramuscular injection of methylprednisolone (160 mg) or placebo.23 Glucocorticosteroids are banned by the World Anti-doping Association.70
Having strong core muscles (we’re talking abs here) can help protect your back from injury. Do this core-strengthening pelvic tilt 2 to 3 times per week: Lie on your back with knees bent, feet flat on the floor, and lower back flattened. Pull in your belly button toward your spine, contracting your abs; your pelvis should lift slightly off the floor.
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
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.
Clearly, stretching works as an effective back pain treatment (and offers a more natural pain relief solution than other common pain interventions, like prescription painkillers or surgery). But why is stretching so effective? Which back pain stretches should you be doing to maximize results? And what are the best ways to incorporate back pain exercises into your daily routine to strengthen your core and keep pain at bay?
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.
Most acute low back pain fades steadily — up to 90% of it, for uncomplicated cases.14 So does a lot of so-called “chronic” low back pain!15 But when you don’t recover, many of the therapeutic options — things like surgery for a herniated disc — cause anxiety that is unnecessary and harmful. The purpose of this tutorial is to review and expand the options.
Bony encroachment: Any condition that results in movement or growth of the vertebrae of the lumbar spine can limit the space (encroachment) for the adjacent spinal cord and nerves. Causes of bony encroachment of the spinal nerves include foraminal narrowing (narrowing of the portal through which the spinal nerve passes from the spinal column, out of the spinal canal to the body, commonly as a result of arthritis), spondylolisthesis (slippage of one vertebra relative to another), and spinal stenosis (compression of the nerve roots or spinal cord by bony spurs or other soft tissues in the spinal canal). Spinal-nerve compression in these conditions can lead to sciatica pain that radiates down the lower extremities. Spinal stenosis can cause lower-extremity pains that worsen with walking and are relieved by resting (mimicking the pains of poor circulation). Treatment of these afflictions varies, depending on their severity, and ranges from rest and exercises to epidural cortisone injections and surgical decompression by removing the bone that is compressing the nervous tissue.
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.
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
This extremely popular 2017 article on Vox.com the “new science” of low back pain was praised by many because it superficially seems to be very modern and science-y, and it correctly dismisses a number of myths, but I think it’s an exasperating failure. It creates a strong impression of being scientifically rigorous without actually being so. It brims with promising science news about alternative treatments that do not actually stand up to more cynical and experienced analysis. Adding to the façade of scientific credibility, many of the right caveats and disclaimers about the “new science” are technically there — warnings about small effect sizes, mixed evidence, and potential flaws — but these cautions are also belated and consistently understated. The tone is overwhelmingly sunny and naïve, as though we are on the verge of a revolution in back pain treatment thanks to … a bunch of stuff that has been around forever and has clearly not been saving the world from chronic low back pain.
Dr. Stieber strongly believes that a personalized treatment approach delivers optimal relief and a superior patient experience. As such, your back pain treatment regimen will be tailored based on the severity, duration and underlying cause of your symptoms. For most of our NYC patients, the solution will involve a blend of approaches, including medication, physical therapy and, in rare cases, surgery.
2010 — Updated: Added a very beefy footnote about some new research showing that muscle imbalance does not result in higher rates of injury. This almost should have been a new section, but I decided to just make it a ginormous footnote — footnotes are there for delving if you want to, that’s the idea! You can read a summary of the research in the bibliography (see Hides et al), but the relevance to back pain is spelled out in detail here. And it’s interesting. [Section: Diagnosis: Your low back is not fragile!]
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.
Achy back? You're not alone: back problems send more Americans to the doctor annually than nearly any other medical problem, according to a 2013 Mayo Clinic study. Whether you're recovering from misjudging a heavy load (we've all been there), dealing with a lingering injury, or have a chronic problem, you don't necessarily need to resort to popping tons of pain relievers. Talk to your doc about these 15 expert-approved natural back pain remedies, and find out if they are safe and appropriate for you.
Just how does acupuncture work? According to traditional Chinese medicine, pain results from blocked energy along the meridians of the body, which are unblocked when acupuncture needles are inserted along these invisible pathways. Acupuncture may also release natural pain-relieving opioids, send signals to the sympathetic nervous system, and release neurochemicals and hormones.
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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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