Put away the painkillers: physical therapy can help heal back pain | Your Health

Jennifer E. Engen

Back pain is one of the most common causes of disability, affecting approximately 80% of us at some point. For some people, their back pain comes with a specific underlying diagnosis such as a muscle spasm, degenerative disc disease, disc herniation or sciatica. For others, there’s simply no clear cause.

The good news is that physical therapy is shown to help people with back pain whether they have a specific diagnosis or not. In fact, PT is recommended as a preferred treatment for most types of chronic pain like back pain.

Here’s a quick wellness assessment to try right now: Are you slouched in a chair or hunched over a smartphone? The classic forward-head and rounded-shoulders position that most of us find ourselves in during the day can put extra stress on the spine. Over time, poor posture also can lead to weak core and pelvic floor muscles, reducing the support and stability a spine needs.

Poor posture isn’t just a potential cause of back pain. For many people, poor posture is a compensation for discomfort. If your back is hurting, you may find yourself in an awkward position in an attempt to find temporary relief.

What this means is that correcting your posture can be helpful in alleviating back pain. But it’s also important to address other underlying risk factors that are driving back pain, including:

  • Age. You’re more likely to experience back pain once you reach your third, fourth or fifth decade of life.
  • Fitness level. If you’re sedentary or a “weekend warrior,” you’re more likely to experience back pain.
  • Weight. Being overweight can increase stress on the back and increase your risk of other health conditions associated with back pain.
  • Genetics. Certain conditions, including scoliosis and ankylosing spondylitis, tend to run in families.
  • Occupational factors. Back pain is common in people with physically demanding jobs that involve a lot of heavy lifting, twisting or pushing, as well as in those who are sedentary at work.
  • Smoking. Smoking reduces the amount of oxygen-rich blood flowing to spinal discs, which can cause them to thin and break down more quickly.
  • Heavy backpacks. This is a common culprit for kids and teens complaining of sore and achy backs.
  • Mental health. Anxiety, depression and other mood-related disorders are associated with back pain, can increase muscle tension in the spine and even influence a person’s perception of pain

Another surprising risk factor for back pain is having had back pain once before.

A 2017 study published in Physical Therapy found that about one-third of people with an acute episode of low back pain will experience back pain again.

So, don’t hesitate to seek out professional help when your back hurts. Because even if your back pain gets better on its own after a couple weeks, you still could have underlying issues that will increase your risk of another episode in the near future.

Physical therapy features multiple approaches that can help people find relief from their back pain, but every approach is highly individualized to meet every patient’s unique needs and goals.

Generally, most people with back pain benefit from some combination of:

  • Manual therapy.
  • Specific exercises aimed at facilitating tissue healing and improving core muscle strength, endurance and coordination, as well as improving range of motion in other areas such as the shoulders and hips.
  • Movement and postural assessments aimed at improving alignment, body mechanics and efficiency.
  • Neuromuscular re-education to redevelop normal movement patterns through exercise and manual techniques.
  • Patient education on the neuroscience of pain and the influence of mindset on a person’s discomfort and long-term outcomes.

Research shows that one of the best ways to improve and prevent back pain is to participate in regular aerobic exercise. Physical therapists can be instrumental here, because they help people feel good enough to start increasing their activity level again.

Kim Gladfelter is owner, physical therapist and Pilates instructor at PhysioFit Physical Therapy & Wellness, 1000 Fremont Ave., Los Altos. For more information, call (650) 887-6046 or visit physiofitpt.com.


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