Regular updates are a key feature of PainScience.com tutorials. As new science and information becomes available, I upgrade them, and the most recent version is always automatically available to customers. Unlike regular books, and even e-books (which can be obsolete by the time they are published, and can go years between editions) this document is updated at least once every three months and often much more. I also log updates, making it easy for readers to see what’s changed. This tutorial has gotten 134 major and minor updates since I started logging carefully in late 2009 (plus countless minor tweaks and touch-ups).
To diagnose back pain -- unless you are totally immobilized from a back injury -- your doctor probably will test your range of motion and nerve function and touch your body to locate the area of discomfort. Sometimes blood and urine tests are performed to make sure that the back pain is not caused by an infection or other more widespread medical problem.
Even as you practice patience, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) such as ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) or naproxen (Aleve) can help ease the pain you're pushing through. The research behind medicine guidelines for lower back pain finds that these may give slightly better relief than acetaminophen (Tylenol). Over long periods, NSAIDs can cause gastrointestinal problems, so don't take them for more than 10 days without consulting your doctor.
That’s a huge topic, but here’s one simple example of an extremely common problem with back pain science: control groups that don’t control. Rather than comparing a treatment to a good, carefully selected placebo, most studies use a comparison to a treatment that is allegedly neutral, underwhelming, or placebo-ish. That makes the results hard to interpret: if each works about the same, it could mean that the treatments are equally effective … or equally ineffective! So much back pain science has this problem — or any one of a dozen other weak points — that you can effectively ignore at least 80% of all back pain research, because it’s so far from the last word on anything. Good science is essential to solving these problems, but really good studies are also difficult to design and rare. BACK TO TEXT
If you have an attack of lower-back pain that is severe, continuous and not improving, assessment and treatment by a health care professional who focuses on the back or other musculoskeletal problems may help. These practitioners may use both active and passive techniques to help you feel better. Examples of passive techniques that may be used to get you moving include:
Chill it. Ice is best in the first 24 to 48 hours after an injury because it reduces inflammation, says E. Anne Reicherter, PhD, PT, DPT, associate professor of Physical Therapy at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. "Even though the warmth feels good because it helps cover up the pain and it does help relax the muscles, the heat actually inflames the inflammatory processes," she says. After 48 hours, you can switch to heat if you prefer. Whether you use heat or ice -- take it off after about 20 minutes to give your skin a rest. If pain persists, talk with a doctor.
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
Few people need surgery for back pain. If you have unrelenting pain associated with radiating leg pain or progressive muscle weakness caused by nerve compression, you might benefit from surgery. Otherwise, surgery usually is reserved for pain related to structural problems, such as narrowing of the spine (spinal stenosis) or a herniated disk, that hasn't responded to other therapy.
It is very common for your hamstring muscles, which are found on the back of your legs, to be very tight when you experience lower back pain. For this reason it is recommended to stretch them out. You can see a great stretch for the hamstrings below. To carry out this exercise, lie on your back with both feet on the floor and knees raised up. Loop a towel under the ball of one foot. Straighten your knee and slowly pull back on the towel. You should feel a gentle stretch down the back of your leg, try not to overdo it. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds. Repeat two times for each leg.
Application of Ice or Heat. Low-quality evidence shows that in the first five days of acute low back pain, the use of heat treatments may be more effective for reducing pain and disability than nonheat wraps, NSAIDs, or acetaminophen, but shows no difference between heat application and McKenzie therapy at seven days.32 A low-quality study found that heat therapy in conjunction with education or NSAIDs is more effective than education or NSAIDs alone at 14 days.33 Ice and heat therapy have similar analgesic effects.32
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.
This myth of “mechanical” failure of the low back has many unfortunate consequences, such as unnecessary fusion surgeries — a common and routinely ineffective procedure — and low back pain that lasts for years instead of months or weeks. The seriousness of chronic low back pain is often emphasized in terms of the hair-raising economic costs of work absenteeism, but it may well be far worse than that — a recent Swedish study shows that it probably even shortens people lives.8 The stakes are high. “Tragedy” is not hyperbole.
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.
Roughly 8 out of 10 people suffer from back pain at some point during their lives. Women, in particular, are prone to posture and back problems—thanks to toting around outrageously heavy purses, going through pregnancy, or giving one-hip rides to kids. Whether you’re in the midst of fighting the ache or just want to prevent it, here are some expert-endorsed quick-and-easy ways to wage your war.
Home care is recommended for the initial treatment of low back pain. Bed rest remains of unproven value, and most experts recommend no more than two days of bed rest or decreased activity. Some people with sciatica may benefit from two to fours days of rest. Application of local ice and heat provide relief for some people and should be tried. Acetaminophen and ibuprofen are useful for controlling pain.
I bought two of your eBooks last week, and I’m enjoying going through them. Your presentation is excellent. It’s far too early too say, of course, but I think I’ve already begun to benefit from your approach. One of the things I like most about your approach is your respect for “science,” as opposed to “merchandising.” You've put so much into those two eBooks, it's going to take time to do them the justice they deserve.
AAOS does not endorse any treatments, procedures, products, or physicians referenced herein. This information is provided as an educational service and is not intended to serve as medical advice. Anyone seeking specific orthopaedic advice or assistance should consult his or her orthopaedic surgeon, or locate one in your area through the AAOS Find an Orthopaedist program on this website.
Music therapy is a low-cost natural therapy that may reduce some of the stress of chronic pain in conjunction with other treatments. Studies find that it may reduce the disability, anxiety, and depression associated with chronic pain. It is thought to help because it can shift attention away from the unpleasant sensations of pain, and it may cause the release of endorphins or changes in catecholamine levels.
"Having excess weight pulling on your back all day (except when you're lying down) is just bad news for your back," says Lauri Grossman, DT, a licensed chiropractor in private practice in New York City. "Often times, when people who wrestle with back pain for a lifetime lose a few pounds, they find that the pain that they've taken a million medications for and a million vitamins for just goes away." If you're having trouble shedding extra pounds, consider consulting with a registered dietitian or personal trainer.
Long-term bed rest is not only no longer considered necessary for most cases of back pain, it is actually potentially harmful, making recovery slower and potentially causing new problems. In most cases, you will be expected to start normal, nonstrenuous activity (such as walking) within 24 to 72 hours. After that ask your doctor about controlled exercise or physical therapy. Physical therapy treatments may employ massage, ultrasound, whirlpool baths, controlled application of heat, and individually tailored exercise programs to help you regain full use of the back. Strengthening both the abdominal and back muscles helps stabilize the spine. You can help prevent further back injury by learning - and doing - gentle stretching exercises and proper lifting techniques, and maintaining good posture.
Is “much” information really “just plain wrong”? I will establish this in the sections ahead with a steady supply of clearly explained references to the medical literature that patients can understand and professionals can respect. This extra layer of information in easy-to-use footnotes is available for any reader who wants to dig deeper and check my facts. For example, here’s a good start: In 2010, the Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery reported that “the quality and content of health information on the internet is highly variable for common sports medicine topics,” such as knee pain and low back pain — a bit of an understatement, really. Expert reviewers examined about 75 top-ranked commercial websites and another 30 academic sites. They gave each a quality score on a scale of 100. The average score? Barely over 50! For more detail, see Starman et al. BACK TO TEXT
Use capsaicin cream. Capsaicin is a substance found in chili peppers. When used medicinally it helps reduces the amount of substance P, a neurotransmitter that leads to pain impulses in the brain. One study showed that after 3 weeks of capsaicin use, patients had a significant reduction in pain. To use: apply topically, at least twice per day, for maximum relief. The warm sensation also allows you to stretch and move without pain.
Grandma was right! Slouching is bad for you. And poor posture can make back pain worse, especially if you sit for long periods. Don't slump over your keyboard. Sit upright, with your shoulders relaxed and your body supported against the back of your chair. Try putting a pillow or a rolled towel between your lower back and your seat. Keep your feet flat on the floor.
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