Back pain, especially lower back pain, is probably one of the most common health complaints found in the general population. Adults in their 30s or 40s may experience a bout of lower back muscle spasms after excessive activity, although most chronic lower back pain issues begin to appear most noticeably after people reach their 50s. With so many cases of lower back pain, it would seem that the medical profession would have already perfected a surgical procedure to resolve such a common issue. In reality, though, back surgery remains a complicated procedure that does not necessarily remove a patient’s back pain. In some cases, back surgery can actually cause more pain and/or additional complications.
Why Lower Back Pain?
Lower back pain often shows up in people beginning in their 50s for a variety of reasons. Our society has become quite sedentary, with many people sitting for long periods of time at work, perhaps at a desk in an office environment, or as part of the transportation industry such as truck drivers who spend years driving cross-country. Even during non-working hours, our society has become more sedentary at home — watching TV instead of going for a walk, and utilizing the drive-thru features of restaurants rather than parking and going inside.
Sitting for long periods of time weakens back muscles, puts excessive pressure on spinal components, especially in the lower back region, and even weakens abdominal muscles that also play a critical role in supporting the lower back. Back arthritis and/or degenerative disc disease, also fairly commonly begin to show up in people in their 50s, as simple age-related wear and tear issues begin to form, even for those who have tried to remain physically active during their younger years.
Common Lower Back Pain Issues
Some people have only lower back pain complaints, but may others may experience sciatica, which is nerve pain that radiates from the lower back, through the upper thigh region, perhaps even radiating all the way down to a person’s toes. Left untreated, sciatica could eventually develop into leg weakness. Spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the canal where the spinal cord resides is also another possible cause of leg weakness. Leg weakness is a sign of a serious condition, so it’s very important for anyone experiencing weakness to be examined by a qualified medical professional.
Surgery or Physical Therapy?
People who avoid seeing a doctor because they are afraid he or she will recommend back surgery are doing themselves a great disservice. Many, many people have experienced significant help with their lower back pain issues through physical therapy alone. Both the Harvard Medical School and the Cleveland Clinic note that in many instances, physical therapy treatment was just as effective as surgery, with the added bonus of avoiding further pain and/or complications that sometimes come with such complicated surgery.
What Can Physical Therapy Do?
A professional physical therapist can help patients reduce their pain levels by using heat and/or ultrasound equipment to increase nutrient-carrying blood flow to injured areas, as well as to promote the relaxation of tight muscles. Therapists may also employ both massage and manual manipulation techniques to help relieve pain and gently re-align spinal structures. Most physical therapists put their patients through a series of exercises designed to gently stretch tense muscles, in addition to eventually introducing strengthening exercises. Increasing muscle strength builds up areas of the body, which in turn provides additional support to the spine.
Spinal Stenosis Exercises
While PTs certainly work with patients who have other back issues such as DDD (degenerative disc disease), lordosis (curvature of the lower back), or sciatic pain, patients are often very concerned when they hear their pain stems from spinal stenosis. This is because it means their spinal cord is impinged in some way. However, surgery is not the only option for these patients as physical therapists have tools and exercises to help these patients as well.
For their stenosis patients, a physical therapist might teach them how to relieve their back pain by doing simple knee to chest exercises, figure four glute stretches, and pelvic tilts. Physical therapists can also help patients select appropriate footwear and other aids that patients can use to support their spine as much as possible.
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