Lower back pain is one of the most common causes of job-related disability and why some people miss work. It is also the second most common neurological ailment in the United States, second only to headache. In fact, approximately 80% of adults in Western countries have, at some point, experienced lower back pain.
For some fortunate people, pain in the lower back may be resolved by itself or with the aid of medication within two to four weeks. However, there are some cases of lower back pain that may last for more than a few weeks, during which case the condition is termed as “chronic” and “progressive,” meaning it can only grow worse over time.
Moreover, 60-80% of those patients who suffer their first episode of lower back pain may experience recurring pain within one year.
According to current research, there are certain muscles in the back that work to stabilize the spine. When the spine or the back suffers an injury, these muscles are reflexively inhibited or shutdown. Worse still, these muscles do not spontaneously recover, and this is true even if patients do not feel pain and are able to return to normal activity levels.
As a result of the inhibition of these muscles, called lumbar multifidi and the transversus abdominus, lower back pain occurs. However, there are steps you can take to prevent the same thing from happening to you.
Lower Back Pain and Physical Therapy
One way to prevent the inhibition of the lumbar multifidi and transversus abdominus is through a series of physical therapy exercises.
Designed to strengthen the muscles of the lower back and keep the spine healthy, these physical therapy exercises may range from back stabilization exercises to muscle strength development and several wide variety of techniques.
In addition, a physical therapist may also recommend such methods as heat therapy, ultrasound, massage, mobilization, and education about posture and body mechanics in order to prevent lower back pain from recurring.
Some of these methods will be discussed later on. You will also find some practical self-help tips provided by experts to help you avoid lower back pain or prevent the condition from worsening.
However, before we head on to learning how lower back pain is treated through physical therapy, it is important that we first understand what causes lower back pain.
Lower Back Pain: CAUSES
There are actually many types of back pain, but the most common is pain in the lower back. Why? You might ask. The reason is simple: you carry most of your weight in the lower back. Thus, it is highly likely that a person would suffer pain in that area.
There is no definitive cause of lower back pain. Sometimes, the causes of the condition are so complex that it is difficult to pinpoint just a single one.
However, physical therapists and other healthcare professionals have observed that lower back pain is often a result of strained back muscles and ligaments due to any of the following activities:
Sudden awkward movement
We could all be guilty of the above activities. We may not suffer any back pains now, but it is likely that as we get older and the degree of inhibition of the back muscles as a result of these activities increases, back pain becomes a very distinct possibility.
In addition to these common activities, lower back pain may also result from specific conditions, such as:
Herniated disk (when the disk material presses on a nerve)
Sciatica (when a herniated disk presses on the sciatic nerve. The condition causes sharp, shooting pain through the buttocks and the back of the leg.)
Spinal stenosis (when the space around the spinal cord and nerve roots becomes narrow. This is caused by arthritis and bone overgrowth, the pain resulting from when a nerve gets pinched in the narrow space.)
Spondylosis (a type of arthritis affecting the spine due to degenerative changes brought on by aging)
Spondylolisthesis (when one vertebra in the spinal column slips forward over another)
Lower Back Pain: TREATMENT
The treatment of lower back pain depends on several factors, including the specific type of lower back pain (whether it is chronic or acute) and the purported cause.
For instance, acute lower back pain is commonly treated with pain relieving drugs, such as analgesics, or some forms of exercises that can help relax the muscles.
On the other hand, chronic back pain or one that lasts for more than two weeks and is progressive may be caused by some underlying condition, during which case the treatment plan may consist of resolving the underlying condition to treat the back pain.
Lower Back Pain and Physical Therapy Exercise
Physical therapy exercise is one of the most common methods of treating lower back pain. In fact, many home remedies for lower back pain consist of exercise, because the general theory is that if you remain active, you remain healthy. This is true in most cases.
However, for purposes of this article, the exercises featured here will be those that are practiced by physical therapists to treat patients with lower back pain.
Generally, in physical therapy exercises, the exercise program for back pain should encompass a set of stretching exercises, strengthening exercises, and low impact aerobics. Read below for more on these exercises:
The back of a person is composed of the spinal column and contiguous muscles, ligaments and tendons. All these are designed to move in consonance with each other so that any limitation in the range of motion in any of these components of the back result in back pain.
Stretching for lower back pain specifically targets soft tissues, such as muscles, ligaments and tendons, found in the back and around the spine. By stretching, the spine and soft tissues are mobilized, increasing motion and thus, relieving pain.
There are many kinds of stretching exercises employed by physical therapists. One is the Hamstring Stretching Exercise which works to relax tight hamstrings, a common symptom of lower back pain. This exercise is said to help decrease the intensity of lower back pain among sufferers.
Physical therapists generally use two forms of strengthening and back pain relief exercises, usually depending on the specific condition of the patient. These are the McKenzie exercises and dynamic lumbar stabilization exercises. However, the two forms of strengthening exercises may also be combined should the therapist find it appropriate to do so.
Named after a physical therapist in New Zealand, McKenzie exercises are primarily extension exercises that could help reduce pain generated from the disc space and also may help reduce the symptoms of herniated disc by reducing pressure on a nerve root.
For acute pain, the McKenzie exercises should be done frequently, at least once every two hours. In addition, patients are advised to avoid flexing their spine when exercising.
-Dynamic Lumbar Stabilization Exercises
Using this back exercise technique, the first thing that a physical therapist does is to look for the patient’s “neutral” spine. This refers to the position that allows the patient to feel the most comfortable.
Afterwards, when the patient is in that position, the back muscles are then exercised in order to “teach” the spine how to stay in this position.
Performing these exercises on a regular basis can help strengthen the back muscles and keep the spine well-positioned.
Low Impact Aerobic Exercises
The purpose of low impact aerobic exercise is to recondition the back. Patients who undergo reconditioning of the back through low impact aerobic exercise will have fewer episodes of lower back pain.
In addition, whenever an episode of lower back pain does occur, the pain is less intense and lasts only for a short period.
Another benefit of low impact aerobic exercise is that patients tend to stay functional that is, they can continue with their regular work and carry on with recreational activities. In contrast, patients who do not undergo low impact aerobic exercises typically experience the gradual loss of their functional abilities.
For low impact aerobic exercises to achieve their desired results, they should be continuous. This will increase the heart rate and keep it elevated as well as increase the production of endorphins, which are pain fighting hormones released by the body.
Here are some examples of low impact aerobic exercises that you may want to try in order to lessen or reduce lower back pain:
One of the simplest forms of aerobic exercises, walking is generally considered as very gentle on the back. To get the maximum benefit from walking as a form of low impact aerobic exercise, walk two to three miles three times per week.
This form of aerobic exercise is less painful on the back since there is lower impact produced. This is beneficial for patients with lower back pain who may find walking too painful.
Sometimes referred to as aquatherapy, water therapy is simply doing exercise in the water. The buoyancy works to provide effective conditioning at the same time stress on the back is reduced.