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.
Because back pain can be so debilitating, a lot of people turn to more serious interventions, like surgery or painkillers — but turns out, all you really need is a good stretch. “Most back pain can be resolved by doing regular exercises to keep muscles that support your spine strong and flexible,” says Fei Jiang, PT, DPT, OCS, at Providence Saint John’s Health Center’s Performance Therapy in Santa Monica, California. In fact, a recent study on back pain found that participants who followed a 12-week stretching regimen reported better back functioning, less pain, and a reduced need for pain medication.
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
For short-term pain relief, over-the-counter pain relievers including acetaminophen and NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) are sometimes suggested. The most common NSAIDs include aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), and naproxen (Aleve). Potential side effects of NSAIDs include stomach and liver problems. Talk to your doctor if you don't find relief after taking the recommended dose.
If your back pain hasn't resolved itself within four to six weeks, you'll want to make an appointment with your doctor. Your doc will examine your back and ask you to sit, stand, bend, walk, and lift your legs to see how your pain is affecting your mobility. You'll likely be asked to rate your pain on a scale of one to 10, and you may be sent for imaging tests like an x-ray or MRI. You might be asked to try one of these therapies:
Since I first started treating low back pain in 2000, there’s been an explosion of free online information about it — countless poor quality articles. Back in the day, we actually had to go to a doctor or buy a book to get shoddy back pain information — now it’s just a Google search away.234 Even many better articles still have serious “attitude” problems.5 But it’s worse than that: even professional back pain guidelines are often misleading.6 For instance, despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, it’s extremely common to incorrectly portray back pain as a “mechanical” problem, as if the spine is a fragile structure which breaks down and causes pain.7 This is based on decades old misconceptions about how backs work, and how pain works, which the medical world is only gradually learning to leave behind.
Another muscle which can be tight when you have lower back pain is the piriformis, a muscle in your butt. The stretch below is really effective in stretching this muscle, and very easy to do. To carry out the exercise, lie on your back and cross the right ankle over the left knee. Grip the thigh of your left leg and take a deep breath in. As you breathe out pull the knee in towards you. Hold the stretch for 20-30 seconds. Repeat two times for each side.
Other back pain remedies that work fast at home is over-the-counter pain medications. Tylenol, or acetaminophen, is really not recommended for muscular strains and sprains. If you’ve hurt your back, the best back pain remedy is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication, or NSAID. These are popularly known as Advil (ibuprofen) and Aleve (naproxen). Once again, these medications help to stem the tide of the blood flow to the area to reduce pain. By keeping inflammation low, your pain is decreased, and you are better able to move. Be careful to follow the bottle’s instructions, though, because these medications can cause stomach ulcers.
One of the most common reasons people develop low back pain is posture. Postural problems, including spinal abnormalities, along with muscular compensations or inactivity put added pressure on the back. Although people of all ages experience low back pain — including both athletes and those who are sedentary — middle-aged to older adults (especially when they’re overweight) are most likely to develop severe symptoms and therefore can benefit from lower back pain relief treatments like chiropractic care, soft tissue therapy and regular exercise.
Spinal disc degeneration coupled with disease in joints of the low back can lead to spinal-canal narrowing (spinal stenosis). These changes in the disc and the joints produce symptoms and can be seen on an X-ray. A person with spinal stenosis may have pain radiating down both lower extremities while standing for a long time or walking even short distances.
Nerve blocks, epidural steroid injections, nerve ablations and other types of injection-based procedures are available for chronic back pain. They are used when the source of the pain is known and can sometimes help rule out certain causes if the treatment doesn’t work. Injections may stop or lessen pain for a certain period of time, but are not intended as long-term solutions and shouldn’t be used in isolation.
Patient information articles published in both the Journal of North American Spine Society and the Journal of the American Medical Association found evidence that spinal manipulations were safe, effective, drugless forms of professional treatment for both acute (short-term or sudden) and chronic low back problems in adults. (2, 3) Egoscue, another type of postural therapy protocol that focuses on fixing musculoskeletal misalignments, may also be able to help reduce and prevent back pain.
Some people may need prescription-strength NSAIDs or opioid medications to help with pain. It is important to talk to your doctor or pharmacist if you are taking any other medications -- including over-the-counter medicines -- to avoid overdosing on certain active ingredients. Your doctor may also prescribe muscle relaxants to help ease painful muscle spasms.
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