It’s sad, but true. The older we get, the more likely we are to experience episodes of low back pain. According to the Harvard Special Health Report, Men’s Health: Fifty and Forward, low back pain will, at some point in their lives, affect four out of five Americans, with back pain affecting men and women fairly equally.
Age can be a sneaky adversary to our health. As we age, the joints and bones in our lower backs start to change. The vertebral discs that act as cushions for our spinal discs get worn out and start to put pressure on our bones and nerves. Sometimes the discs actually start to squeeze out of the space between our discs and end up pressing on a nerve that connects to the spinal cord. This is known as a herniated disc. If the nerve that is pressed on happens to be the sciatic nerve, it becomes what we commonly refer to as, sciatica.
Most often, however, lower back pain is caused by things like improper lifting, trauma, or simple overuse of muscles. We slept “wrong”. We swung a golf club at a weird angle. We twisted too much at our desks. Generally speaking, the underlying cause of low back pain isn't anything major or glamorous.
How To Manage Low Back Pain
When we experience a lower back strain or sprain, the best move is often just to wait and see if the pain goes away by itself. If the pain has not resolved within a week or so there may be some things you want to do to try and speed up the recovery process.
It is important to note, however, that if you have any specific co-occurring conditions, known as Red Flags, then you should make an appointment with your doctor to rule out anything more serious that might be causing your low back pain.
With that said, here are 5 tips for back pain relief if you need to speed up the healing process a bit.
Sleep is one of the most underutilized treatments for just about everything that is health related. Sometimes when we sleep we put pressure on our spines which can lead to lower back pain. Fortunately there are lots of things that you can do to help ensure a good night’s rest even when your back pain is flaring up.
Elevate your legs - it relieves the pressure placed on your back during sleep.
Place a pillow under your knees - this can also help relieve pressure on your back.
Check your mattress - it might be older than you realize! The average lifespan of a mattress is less than 10 years but older mattresses may not be giving your back the support that it needs. Medium-firm mattresses tend to be the best option for those with back issues.
Physical therapy is unanimously recommended by international guidelines for managing lower back pain. When it comes to treating your low back pain, your therapist should put together a set of exercises tailored specifically for your condition, as well as taking into account your goals for mobility and activity. Exercise is the foundation for managing chronic lower back pain issues and developing a strong core to strengthen the muscles that support your back can make a big difference to how fast you heal and to how well you manage future flare ups.
Some techniques in physical therapy to manage chronic back pain include:
Retraining your posture
Stretching and flexibility exercises
Strengthening your core muscles
Some goals of physical therapy typically include pain management as well as exercises to help with mobility and activity. Depending on the cause of your back pain, or how intense your pain is, physical therapists may also use other techniques such as electrical stimulation, ultrasound, and active release/myofascial release.
In the past it was thought that people with back pain should rest for a few days. Research has now shown us that this is actually not the right way to manage lower back issues. One of the best things that you can do for an injured back is to keep moving and continue with your regular activities as much as possible. Obviously if you have had a severe trauma you should check with your doctor, but, generally speaking, movement is the best way to manage low back pain, with research showing that people who remain active recover faster than those who don’t.
Exercise helps to build strong, flexible muscles that are less prone to injury. Movement therapies can include pretty much anything that gets you going in a gentle way, Aerobic exercise, strength training, yoga, Pilates, and swimming are some of the most popular ways to stay active while living with lower back issues.
While it can be difficult to work through the pain at first, your pain should start to get better as you stretch and strengthen. Exercise can also trigger the release of endorphins that help to make you feel better and decrease your sensitivity to pain.
Chronic back pain can take a toll on people both physically and emotionally. Chronic pain has been shown to increase levels of depression, anxiety, frustration, and irritability. Because of the emotional and mental aspect to pain researchers have found that incorporating therapies that focus on behavioral health can assist with managing lower back pain.
Psychological treatments such as CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) and MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) have been shown to help reduce pain sensitivity and improve functionality for those with lower back pain. When dealing with chronic pain, science has shown that taking a biopsychosocial approach to pain management has the best outcomes for sufferers. Programs that include a combination of behavioral health, exercise, relaxation, and education have the best outcomes for clients.
Biofeedback is a therapeutic technique that helps train your body on how to control the muscles and supposedly involuntary physical responses that your body has to stress and pain. During biofeedback, clients use special biofeedback machines (monitoring devices) that can show metrics such as breathing rate, heart rate, blood flow, and muscle tension/ contraction.
When we are stressed our muscles often tense up, our breathing gets faster, and our hearts begin to race. When we can see those responses on a screen we are able to visualize the physical responses we have to stress. By implementing techniques like deep breathing, relaxation exercises and muscle relaxation, we can start to relax our bodies, reduce tension, decrease pain, and reduce our chances of injury.
Biofeedback is non-invasive and there is growing evidence to support its use in managing low back pain, with some studies finding that it works even better than medication - reducing pain intensity by about 30%! It is convenient, cost effective, and it has no side effects. This makes biofeedback a great tool for managing low back pain for all types of people.
While low back pain affects so many people in debilitating ways, the good news is that there are ways that we can treat and manage this condition. Most of these techniques do not involve medication, are cost effective, and are completely natural. If we are educated around lower back pain, and we know that at some point in our lives we are likely to experience it, we can take steps to try and limit these episodes.
Getting good sleep each night, staying active, and managing stress are things that anyone can do each day - and they don’t cost a thing. For more information on biofeedback, or for tips on how to get good sleep with low back pain check out our website for more blogs.