If you want to steer clear of lower back pain, remember this: Arch is good, flat is bad.
Back pain is anything but rare; only headaches and colds are more common. According to the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke, Americans spend more than $50 billion each year on lower back pain, which is the No. 1 cause of job-related disability in the country and one of the leading contributors to missed time from work.
There’s acute lower back pain, sometimes intense but generally short-lived discomfort resulting from injury to the lower back incurred during sustained physical activity (playing sports, doing yard work) or by a sudden jolt (being in a vehicle collision). But it’s chronic lower back pain, the kind that lasts for more than three months, that is more debilitating and more difficult to treat.
Much of that chronic pain is caused by damage to the discs — the spongy, multi-function structures that lie between the spine’s vertebrae — in the lower part of the back right above the pelvis known as the lumbar region. And much of that damage is caused by poor body mechanics — the way people stand, walk, lift, carry, reach, bend, sit and sleep — in which the back is too often flat, not arched.
“The key to avoiding lower back pain is keeping pressure off your lower lumbar discs,” said Tadhg O’Gara, M.D., an orthopaedic surgeon at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C. “That means keeping an arch to your lower back.”
The intervertebral discs, essentially the spine’s shock absorbers, are under constant pressure, especially in the lower back, which supports the weight of the upper body. The five vertebrae in the lumbar region are naturally arched toward the front of the body, so bending forward compresses the front of these disks, which over time can force them out of position to press on one or more of the nerves emanating from the spinal cord. This condition — known as a bulging, herniated or ruptured disc — can cause pain in the lower back and elsewhere, especially the buttocks, thighs and even below the knee (sciatica). And that pain can be severe.
“People who haven’t had lower back pain don’t re alize how painful it is,” O’Gara said. “And many health care providers don’t realize how painful it is.”
So how is chronic lower back pain treated?
“The first thing to figure out is what exactly is causing the pain, because that determines what approach to take with treatment,” said Kristopher Karvelas, M.D., assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Wake Forest Baptist. “That’s not always easy. Pain is usually related to the discs, but other causes of low back pain have overlapping symptoms and pain patterns.”
Basic diagnostic methods include physical examination, review of the patient’s medical history and patient descriptions of the onset, location, severity and duration of the pain and of any limitations in movement. Imaging techniques such as X-rays, MRI and CT scans also can be employed to pinpoint the source of pain.
Once the reason behind the pain is determined, the most frequently prescribed treatment is physical therapy, not surgery.
“I typically reserve surgery for patients who have a medical need other than pain,” Karvelas said. “There’s a large toolbox that we can go to for patients, and surgery is the last tool.”
Depending on the individual patient’s condition, physical therapy programs usually include exercises designed to strengthen back and abdominal muscles and to promote proper posture and balance. These can include stretching, swimming, walking and even yoga. But education also is a key element.
“Patients need to recognize that posture and activity are crucial in relieving and preventing back pain,” Karvelas said. “They need to learn what exercises to do on their own and how to do them properly to prevent future flare-ups.
“We can help resolve acute back pain episodes, but when we are talking about chronic back pain, the pain may never resolve completely. However, we do use a team approach to treat patients and teach people how to cope with their pain effectively.
Living and working in this century will have seen us spending more and more time sitting at the computer, whether it is part of our work, studying or even leisure time. An unfortunate consequence of spending long periods of time doing this is that it can cause pain in a number of areas including the neck, shoulders, arms and lower back.
Sitting at a desk for long periods means it is often difficult to maintain good posture for long periods of time. Many people will have a tendency to lean forward or slouch their shoulders which will put unnecessary stress on the spine leading to pain and fatigue. Repetitive movements such as typing /filing can also contribute to pain by placing your body in awkward positions and increasing the risk of muscle strain.
Simple tips how we can avoid this situation developing and causing pain.
Get up every 20 minutes, stretch and walk around
Specific stretches to the neck, chest, shoulders and mid and lower back.
Strengthening exercises to improve the strength of the deep neck muscles, shoulder blade muscles and the deep abdominals that stabilise the lower back.
Ergonomic assessment. The set up of your desk will have a big influence on the stresses and strains on your muscles and joints. A few adjustments could make a huge difference to your pain and also prevent future problems developing, for example adjusting your computer screen height. Many workplaces offer these assessments. Your physiotherapist will be able to advice you on simple adjustments or even visit your workplace to perform an assessment.
Already have pain from sitting at your desk?
If you are in the unfortunate situation of already having pain it is recommended that you address all the above steps immediately. It is also advised that you take some painkillers and/or anti-inflammatory medication. Consider using heat packs to soothe tightness and soreness in muscles. Most importantly, physiotherapy or your preferred form of musculoskeletal treatment should be sought. Everyone is different, so a physiotherapist will be able to specifically assess your painful area and look at the causes of your pain. Following this he /she will be able to advise what you can do yourself. This may include specific stretches and strengthening exercises, adjustments to your desk and correction of your posture.
The physiotherapist will also provide you with some hands on treatment which may include soft tissue massage, joint mobilisation and dry needling to help settle the pain. Early intervention is the key to ensuring your pain is managed effectively and will normally mean less physiotherapy treatment is required.
Figures suggest that around 80% of people experience back pain at some time in their lives. Back and neck pain can be very debilitating so how a physiotherapist manages back pain treatment is essential to secure a positive result. Back pain can be localised in and around the spine, but can also be experienced as sciatic pain. Headaches and migraines are also commonly caused by neck issues.
Exercise is important
Exercise is gaining recognition as playing a vital role in the long term recovery and in preventing many musculoskeletal injuries, including back and neck pain. Exercise compliments physiotherapy treatment management and achieve long term results when trying to prevent and rehabilitate pain and injury by correcting the underlying causes, not just seeking to stop the pain.
The underlying biomechanics that cause back and neck pain
Most back pain is caused by excessive loading placed on muscles, joints, ligaments, spinal discs, etc. due to poor core stability. Core stability is traditionally defined as; an individual’s strength and control of their lower back, pelvic and abdominal muscles in order to maintain optimal postural alignment of the lower back and pelvis.
However it is important to also include the shoulder girdle and rib cage, as the lower back and pelvis do not operate in isolation, and muscles throughout the torso must act in a coordinated manner in order to maintain optimal postural alignment and also to initiate biomechanically efficient upper and lower limb movements.
A good analogy to help understand core stability is to consider how a tent is supported. A tent is held upright by a rigid tent pole. The bones of your spine act like a tent pole, however your spine is not rigid, so it relies on the support of ligaments and deep stabilising muscles to hold adjacent vertebrae and to help maintain optimal postural alignment i.e. stabilise the spine. If the muscles that stabilise the spine, pelvis, rib cage and shoulder are weak or are poorly controlled then your spine will tend to collapse, just like a tent pole made from a piece of spaghetti. There are many muscles that attach directly onto the spine, pelvis, rib cage and shoulders. These muscles move our torso and limbs and also assist with stabilising the core, acting in a similar way that guide ropes help to keep the tent pole upright. If a tent had guide ropes that pulled more on one side than on the opposite side then the tent would lean, so too, if the muscles on one side pulled more than the other due to imbalances in strength and/ or flexibility, or these muscles compensate for weak stabiliser muscles then they will pull your body into a poor postural alignment. One very important difference to note is that a tent only requires “static stability” i.e. support to maintain a single stationary position, whereas, the human body must have “dynamic stability” to provide support and maintain optimal alignment of their core and limbs whilst moving in many different ways to participate in sport, work and daily living activities.
How a physiotherapist corrects biomechanical faults
Physiotherapists conduct a comprehensive physical assessment and then use this information to design a personalised exercise program to improve posture/ biomechanics, core stability, flexibility, functional strength, cardiovascular fitness, balance and coordination. Programs focus on achieving long term results by correcting the underlying biomechanics causes of your pain, improving the strength of muscles that support your back and neck and teaching efficient movement for your specific sport, work or daily living activities. Expert supervision by an Physiotherapist ensures that each client completes the exercises with good technique to prevent further injury, to ensure that the exercises are effective, and also to ensure that progressions are made at safe and appropriate times.
Dry needling involves the application of very fine sterilised acupuncture needles into muscle and surrounding tissues to assist in the release of myofascial trigger points, reduce tightness and spasm, improve muscle function and relieve pain. It is commonly used as an adjunct to physiotherapy and myotherapy techniques to improve treatment outcomes.
There are two types of Dry Needling, the first called Superficial Dry Needling (SDN) works by inserting the needle only 5-10mm under the skin. Secondarily is Deep Dry Needling (DDN) where the needle is inserted to the depth required to penetrate the targeted myofascial trigger point.
How does it work?
Myofascial trigger points are hyper-irritable, taut bands within muscles, which are painful to touch and can contribute to muscle shortening, weakness and pain (both locally and referred). They often develop following muscle, joint or nerve injury and sometimes persist well after the initial tissue injured has healed. This leads to persistent pain and discomfort.
Dry needling releases these trigger points by encouraging local blood flow to the trigger point and by modulating nerve pathways that erroneously cause them to persist. The needling also stimulates your body’s own endorphin system to provide pain relief and help allow the muscle to relax.
Dry needling can be extremely effective in the treatment of:
Needles used in dry needling are much thinner than those you receive when you see your GP for an injection and so usually cause much less discomfort. This does vary depending on what techniques your therapist uses. You may also experience the very satisfying response of the muscle twanging and releasing quickly. A sure sign of a successful trigger point release.
The initial treatment is conservative to determine the patient’s response. This varies from person to person. It is expected that there will be some post treatment soreness during the first 24-48hrs and sometimes minor bruising is experienced.
What sorts of conditions can Dry Needling be beneficial for?
Dry needling can produce excellent results as an adjunct to standard physiotherapy and manual therapy treatment. It can be used in both acute and chronic painful conditions.
Dry needling can be extremely effective in the treatment of:
Back, neck and shoulder pain
Hand and wrist pain
Tendinopathy pathologies i.e. Tennis elbow, Achilles pain
Many other musculoskeletal injuries (You can discuss dry needling with your therapist to see if it may be useful for your condition)
What is the difference between Dry Needling and Acupuncture?
Dry needling revolves around Western Medicine philosophy and involves inserting needles into muscular trigger points palpated by your therapist and consistent with your area of pain.
Acupuncture is based on ancient Eastern Medicine, with needle placement over specific points along meridian lines or ‘energy’ lines which are thought to associate with particular illness and disease.