Popular Back Pain Products - More Harm Than Good?


Did you know that if you do a Google search for Low Back Pain Products you will get more than 1,160,000,000 results!! That’s a LOT of results! Treatments for lower back pain range from extremely invasive platelet rich plasma treatments, to cold packs and back braces, with so many many more things in between.


Over time clinical research has emerged for some of these products so that consumers can decide for themselves if these products could be a good fit for them. Scientific research can also help people review popular back pain products. We take a look at 5 of the most popular types of back pain products on the market to see if they can really help chronic back pain sufferers or if they do more harm than good.



Effectiveness of TENS units for low back pain


TENS MACHINES


A transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation machine/unit (TENS unit) is a small, battery-operated device that was developed to help relieve pain. TENS units have small electrodes that attach to the skin via pads. Small electrical impulses are sent to the nervous system through these tiny electrodes, interfering with the nervous system’s ability to transmit pain signals to the brain and spinal cords.


TENS units are a great way for people to relieve pain without having to take medication. In fact, using a TENS unit can be a way for some people to reduce the amount of pain medication that they are currently using. You can adjust the levels of pain relief by controlling the currents that come from the TENS unit. Most TENS units are fairly small and discrete, making them portable and easy to carry around. This is important because unfortunately, pain relief is only generally experienced while the unit is active.



There is conflicting research on the effectiveness of TENS units for low back pain.


TENS units are commonly used to treat the following:



TENS units are not completely free of any side effects


Safety


TENS units are generally safe to use and have a lot less side effects than many pain medications, making it an attractive alternative treatment for many who do not wish to take medicine every day for their back pain. TENS units are not completely free of any side effects and it is important to know that the unit may cause:


  • Uncomfortable buzzing/prickling/tingling sensation on the skin

  • Allergic reactions to the adhesive pads

  • Spasms in the neck area

  • Low blood pressure

  • Skin burns


Experts also advise against using TENS units for the following groups of people:

  • People with pacemakers/electrical implants

  • People with epilepsy

  • People with heart issues

  • Pregnant women



TENS units may not be suitable for pregnant women.


Help or Harm?


Unfortunately it is hard to know whether this really is an effective alternative for low back pain sufferers. There is a lot of research being done on these devices but as yet, scientists have not been able to determine with certainty that TENS is a reliable treatment for lower back pain relief. Current research is a little conflicted with some studies finding that TENS treatment did indeed provide temporary pain relief for individuals suffering from fibromyalgia.


Several factors have been found to influence just how effective TENS treatment can be.


Tolerance Build Up

Tolerance build up can occur over time when people use the device daily at the same frequency and intensity. Individuals who build up tolerance to TENS units will no longer experience the same level of pain relief that they did when they first started using the device. Data suggests that alternating between high and low frequencies can help prevent this tolerance build up from occurring. Users can also gradually increase intensity and duration over time to keep changing the frequency but this could result in other unwanted side effects, possibly even an increased sensitivity to pain.



Scientific research does not generally support the use of TENS machines for low back pain


Stimulation Intensity

According to a 2014 review it was suggested that the range of intensities of the electrical stimulation could account for some of the different results in the effectiveness of this treatment. When it came to high versus low frequency, many studies found that low frequency TENS was not effective in relieving pain. This led experts to recommend that individuals who wish to use TENS units for pain relief, should apply the highest-intensity current that they can tolerate. Again, this can cause some undesired physical reactions, which is why many experts suggest switching between frequencies instead.


Conclusions


While TENS is a promising alternative to medication for low back pain relief, there are still many questions to be answered regarding both safety and efficacy before using this treatment. It is also not a safe and viable option for all individuals.



Percussion therapy is a specific massage technique used to treat soft tissue pain


Percussion Therapy


While the name sounds quite complex and imposing, percussion therapy really just refers to a specific massage technique used to treat soft tissue pain. A massage gun is used to generate rapid strokes that stimulate blood flow to the muscles, helping with relief from soreness or injury and improving flexibility and range of motion.


One of the most popular percussion therapy guns on the market is the Theragun. The Theragun is a handheld percussive therapy gun that uses a soft, blunt tip to provide a deep massage to various muscles in the body. The Theragun is designed so that you can massage yourself, or someone can help you with hard-to-reach areas like the back muscles. The device is designed to deliver a concentrated force to the soft tissue muscles to help reduce pain, and the company claims that it delivers deeper muscle therapy than either traditional hand massage or foam rollers.



Massage guns are not invasive and are only used on the external parts of the body


Safety


The good news is that the Theragun is extremely safe to use. It is not invasive and is only used on the external parts of the body. There are no electrical impulses generated with this device so the worst thing that could happen is possible bruising of the affected massage area.


Most users give an average of 4 out of 5 stars when reviewing this product, although it does depend on the model that you purchase. Amazon has some mixed reviews ranging from 1-5 stars. Also, according to the Better Business Bureau (BBB), they are not an accredited business, which gives them an F rating. Customers cite issues with devices not working and customer service complaints, giving them a 1 star average on this site.



Percussive therapy has been shown to help increase range of motion, without affecting muscle power.


Help or Harm?


According to a recent study, percussive therapy was shown to help increase range of motion, without affecting muscle power. The researchers recommended that percussive therapy be used before physical therapy to increase flexibility. Unfortunately this study only included 16 males and was therefore too small to be very meaningful.


Another larger study of 45 females found that percussion therapy and deep massage were equally effective in preventing delayed onset muscle soreness. The researchers also found evidence suggesting that percussion therapy could help to reduce pain and reduce lactic acid buildup in the muscles after a workout.


Conclusions


While more research still needs to be done to confirm the positive effects of percussion therapy on chronic lower back pain, the data gathered so far does look positive. The Theragun is a safe treatment option with very little restrictions on who can use the device. The downside to this treatment is probably mainly associated with cost as the device starts at around $300 for the most basic model, and it remains to be seen if the Theragun is effective for everyone in preventing muscle soreness or increasing range of motion.




Foam rollers are popular for treating low back and muscle pain.


Foam Rollers


Foam rollers are one of the simplest, cheapest and most purchased devices used to treat lower back pain. They have been around since the 1980s but have been gaining in popularity in the past 5 or so years. They are cylindrical in shape, vary in their length and firmness, and are lightweight and easy to travel with. Foam rollers are extremely easy to use - you simply lie on the ground and start rolling whichever part of your body needs the work. Foam rollers are used by millions of people around the world, including athletes and gym goers, to release and massage tight muscles.


Foam rolling relies on a technique called self-myofascial release (SMR) to help relax and release the tight connective tissue (fascia) that holds the muscles and muscle fibers together. When the fascia are tight and stiff, range of motion is restricted and muscles become sore. Foam rolling releases the fascia, relieving the pain and improving flexibility.



Foam rolling increases flexibility and range of motion, reducing risk of injury


Foam rolling has the following benefits:

  • Reduces soreness and swelling post-workout/strenuous activity

  • Increases flexibility and range of motion, reducing risk of injury

  • Improves blood flow to muscles

  • Induces autogenic inhibition (sustained pressure to trigger points forces muscles and tendons to relax after initial resistance)


Safety


Foam rollers are a non-invasive treatment for lower back issues, making them a popular treatment for this condition. It is important to note that there are some things to know about foam rolling to get the most out of this tool.


It is important to know the proper source of your pain when you are foam rolling. If you are experiencing referred pain then you could end up rolling the wrong spot entirely. For example, a small muscle under the glutes, called the piriformis, can be the cause of lower backache. If you roll your back, instead of the piriformis, you won’t experience any pain relief.



Foam rolling needs a lot of muscle control to have proper form


It is also important to know how to use the foam roller correctly. Applying pressure to injured nerves (such as with sciatica) can actually make your pain worse, or cause new issues. It is also important to know that you should not use the foam roller directly on your vertebrae in your neck, or on the mid-to lower section of your back. This type of rolling needs a lot of muscle control to have proper form. Incorrect form can strain your muscles, causing more harm. You should avoid using the foam roller directly on your lower back as this can put pressure on your internal organs like your liver and kidneys.


Foam rolling is not recommended for the following people:




Foam rolling can have benefits both before, and after workouts.


Help or Harm?


More evidence is needed to fully understand how foam rolling benefits the muscles. There is growing scientific evidence to support the use of foam rolling as a warm-up activity and pre-rolling seems to be “an effective strategy for short term improvements in flexibility without decreasing muscle performance”. There are also positive effects of post-workout foam rolling for reducing muscle soreness. Evidence seems to show that while the short term flexibility benefits of foam rolling only last for up to 10 minutes, long term foam rolling can improve chronic flexibility when done on a regular basis.


While foam rolling is inexpensive and doesn’t appear to be too technical, it is important to note that it is not necessarily suitable for everyone. Foam rolling can put stress on the underlying tissues of the body, including the nerves, blood and lymphatic vessels, and your bones. People with conditions like advanced diabetes and varicose veins should consult their healthcare provider before trying foam rolling.


You should also consult your healthcare provider if you are in the early stages of recovering from a torn muscle as rolling over a torn muscle can slow down repair and cause a lot of pain. If you are thinking of starting to foam roll for your chronic back pain then it is a good idea to speak to your physical therapist or healthcare provider on the best options for you.



Foam rolling over a torn muscle can slow down repair and cause a lot of pain


Conclusions


Foam rolling is a relatively easy, inexpensive, and non-invasive way to help manage back pain but it is limited in regard to the scientific evidence supporting its effectiveness. Foam rolling does not come without its risks for certain individuals with some health conditions so you should be sure to consult with your healthcare provider before making it a part of your every day routine.




Inversion therapy is a form of spinal traction that stretches out the spine and helps to relieve low back pain


Inversion Tables


Inversion therapy is when you are suspended upside down into a head-down position in order to take gravitational pressure off the nerve roots and discs in your spine and give you more space between your vertebrae. Inversion therapy is a form of spinal traction that stretches out the spine and helps to relieve low back pain. Inversion therapy is used to help individuals with chronic low back pain, scoliosis, sciatica, and poor circulation.


Safety


Inversion therapy can be a great way to improve joint health, relieve stress, strengthen core muscles, and help with circulation. Many athletes use it for recovery. Inversion therapy can also help detoxify your body by promoting lymph circulation when the spine is decompressed and the intervertebral discs are rehydrated. Lymph protects you from illnesses and helps to rid your body of toxic substances that build up over time.


Some say that inversion therapy poses little threat to the average person but because it involves hanging upside down for periods of time, this treatment can be especially risky for those with glaucoma, heart disease or high blood pressure. When you are inverted for more than a couple of minutes your heartbeat slows down and blood pressure increases, putting pressure on your eyeballs.



Inversion therapy can be risky for those with glaucoma and heart disease.


Depending on your level of fitness, being in traction can actually lead to pulled muscles instead of just stretching out your spine. You should be careful what you attempt to do while in traction and build up slowly. The stretching action of an inversion table can also worsen hernias and strain ankles.


People who should avoid inversion therapy include:


  • Pregnant women

  • People with conjunctivitis or glaucoma

  • Recent back surgery patients

  • Individuals with high blood pressure

  • People with swollen joints

  • People with unhealed fractures

  • Those with ear infections

  • People with osteoporosis

  • People taking anticoagulants

  • Obese individuals


More research needs to be done to confirm the effectiveness of inversion therapy for back pain.


Help Or Harm


According to data from the Mayo Clinic, a lot of the research around inversion therapy has found the treatment to be ineffective. There are some studies out there, however, that support the use of inversion therapy. The Journal of the Canadian Chiropractic Association published a study titled, ‘Adaption Tilt Table Lumbar Traction’, where it was concluded that 90% of patients who underwent 8 inversion table treatments showed improvement in a range of back pain related complaints.


New Castle University researchers found that 75% of their study’s participants were able to avoid surgery and other invasive treatments after using inversion therapy.



Conclusions


While inversion therapy is not invasive, it certainly puts strain on parts of the body that can have some serious consequences. With the data being somewhat inconclusive and equipment being rather expensive, you should definitely consult with your healthcare provider before starting this type of treatment for low back pain.



Poor posture is a common cause of low back pain.


Posture Trainers


A common cause of low back pain is poor posture. Posture trainers are designed to help improve posture, thereby reducing and relieving low back pain. Posture trainers are relatively simple, inexpensive ways to support different parts of the back and neck, helping to train muscles to support the appropriate weight and prevent unnecessary strain on the wrong muscles and joints.


Posture aids often offer support for injured joints but some devices, such as the Upright Go, act as reminders to sit up straight and improve your posture without the bulkiness of a brace. Posture trainers can help reduce pain and improve mobility but they do not address the underlying cause of back pain - weak core muscles.



Long term use of posture trainers, like back braces, can actually weaken your muscles, leading to increased back pain.


Safety


Posture aids should only be used as temporary trainers and should not be used long term as this can weaken the muscles leading to further injury. Other than devices like the Upright Go, it is generally not advisable for people to just purchase a brace from the store. If your healthcare provider recommends that you wear a brace for your low back pain they will generally show you how to adjust the brace, as well as how to use it effectively.


If you think you might need a posture trainer, it is a good idea to visit your chiropractor, doctor, or physical therapist for a full assessment. They can then recommend a brace that will work well with your specific injury and body type. It can be tempting to just find one online, especially since they are relatively inexpensive - they can range anywhere from $20 to $300, depending on the type of brace you want to buy. You could end up buying the wrong type of brace, or wearing it wrong and causing more harm than good.



It is important to get fitted for the right type of back brace.


Help or Harm


Unfortunately there is not a lot of scientific research to be found on the effectiveness of posture trainers for low back pain. One study did find that using a brace improved shoulder posture and muscle activity so the authors concluded that using a scapular brace might improve shoulder posture in athletes with poor posture. Upright is currently conducting studies to prove their product’s effectiveness for low back pain -related issues. The good news is that these devices are relatively harmless, do not exacerbate any medical conditions or interfere with medical devices and they are relatively inexpensive ($60 - $100).


Conclusion


While there is not a lot of evidence to support the use of braces or posture trainers, these devices are generally harmless when used for short periods of time. They are often relatively inexpensive and can help train the body to have better posture and evenly distribute the body’s weight. As always, it is a good idea to consult with your doctor or physical therapist before purchasing a device so that they can make sure that you select one that will work best with your specific condition or injury.



Final Thoughts


Hopefully the data presented here can help you understand some of the popular back pain products in a little more detail. We believe that knowledge is power and knowing the science behind some of these products can help you make the best choices for your particular condition. Even when something seems relatively harmless, there can be certain situations that make it a poor treatment option for certain conditions or individuals. Have a chat with your healthcare provider and then you can make a fully informed decision as to what treatment option might be best for your lower back pain condition.