When it comes to managing low back pain, most cases tend to resolve on their own within a few weeks. Given this fact, many people try to manage their condition by themselves before seeking the help of their healthcare provider. One of the easiest ways that people manage their pain is to take medication for their condition.
Research shows that among US adults with chronic lower back pain, ages 20 to 69 years, just under 40% had taken prescription pain medication within the past 30 days. Around 20% of these had used opioids, while almost 10% used NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs).
With the high rate of side effects and the addiction crisis that has been sweeping the nation for some time, international guidelines recommend that people with chronic low back pain should be given nonpharmacological treatment options - not medication - like heat, acupuncture or massage.
Popular Non-Medication Treatments For Low Back Pain
Some popular nonpharmacological treatments can include the following:
CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy)
At Home Treatments For Low Back Pain
Some of these treatments can be done from the comfort of your own home, while others may require the help of a trained professional. So, if you are trying to recover from an episode of low back pain at home before seeing your doctor, what options are available to you that can speed up the recovery process but that doesn’t involve over the counter medications?
1. Heat/Ice Pads
Heat and ice have long been popular treatments for managing low back pain. Heat is not only comforting and soothing, but it has real value as a treatment option for many different conditions, like low back pain.
Heat therapy increases blood flow to the muscles, helping with the healing process. When blood flows to the muscles, more oxygen and nutrients are delivered to the muscles, helping to heal damaged tissues. Heat therapy also helps to reduce tension and tightness in the muscles, helping to manage the pain.
Ice therapy is good to use within the first 24 hours of a back injury as it can help reduce inflammation and swelling of the affected tissue. If you are using ice therapy you should make sure that you do not apply ice directly to the skin as that can cause burning.
Stretching is another great way to help relieve lower back pain at home. While it isn’t a fix for all types of lower back pain, it can provide relief for many cases of chronic lower back pain. Stretching helps to strengthen the muscles in your lower back and shoulders which helps support your spine and improves your posture.
Stretching has also been shown to improve range of motion and reduce stiffness and soreness. A study of over 100 nurses in Taiwan looked at the effectiveness of a stretching based program to help with chronic lower back pain. The study found that the nurses who participated in the stretching plan showed “significantly higher exercise self-efficacy” than the control group at four and six months. Also a total of 81% of the participants in the experimental group reported a “moderate to high level of LBP relief”.
3. Digital Physical Therapy
Physical therapy is a guideline-based and clinically recommended treatment for chronic low back pain. The problem is that physical therapy should be performed by licensed therapists and generally require going into a hospital or clinic setting. Physical therapy can also be very expensive with not all clinicians accepting private pay clients and not all patients have insurance plans that cover this treatment. Cue the invention of digital physical therapy programs.
Wearable devices are increasing in popularity, as are telehealth services. Conditions like hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease are all conditions that are currently being looked at for digital therapeutic management. Wearables have come a long way since the introduction of the Fitbits and Garmin devices. From heart monitors and electrocardiogram applications, to temperature and reproductive cycle trackers, wearables are taking the virtual healthcare industry by storm and physical therapy is no exception.
The physical therapy industry has been carefully considering digital technology for some time now, especially with the limitations placed on in-person therapy during the pandemic. On March 18, 2020, a white paper on Digital Physical Therapy was approved by the World Confederation For Physical Therapy. This white paper was the result of thousands of interviews of physical therapists from around the world , and it looked specifically at the role that technology was playing in the treatment of physical therapy clients.
The task force looked at the advantages and limitations, regulatory issues, and recommendations for opportunities for using digital technology in physical therapy. They also proposed a definition and purpose statements to help define what digital physical therapy is. They concluded that "Digital practice" is a term used to describe 'health care services, support, and information provided remotely via digital communication and devices'.
Digital Physical Therapy Tools
Digital physical therapy can incorporate a variety of tools including:
home exercise videos
virtual reality sessions for balance exercises
electronic health records
video assessments, and more.
Studies that have looked at the effectiveness of digital physical therapy solutions have been very successful. The Rise-UP study showed that “in a pre-selected population of application users, an app digitalizing multidisciplinary rehabilitation for the self-management of LBP reduced user-reported pain levels significantly”.
There are a multitude of options available for treating low back pain but not all of them are actually proven to work. Some that have been shown to be effective, like medication, can potentially be harmful to our health in other ways.
Since we know that most cases of low back pain should resolve on their own, often the best thing to do is just to give your back some time to heal and to see if you can identify what triggered the pain in the first place. To assist the healing process we can see that stretching, heat and ice packs, and physical therapy can be helpful in speeding up our recovery.
The Covid-19 pandemic has helped to usher in more widespread adoption of telehealth services, especially with its new reimbursement policies. Going forward, it is likely that some sort of hybrid model will emerge that supports in-person visits being supplemented with digital technology in order to provide timely, accessible, and cost effective treatments for physical therapy patients. Digital physical therapy will certainly continue to serve as a key modality for patient care even as we slowly emerge from pandemic conditions.
If you would like to learn more about digital physical therapy check out our blog on the topic and learn more about some of the amazing changes that this technology is bringing to the healthcare industry.