Back pain – top treatment tips
Do you struggle with back pain? Back pain is a common condition that can affect us all. In fact, it’s rare that anyone gets through life without an episode or two.
The good news is that we can usally help most unresolved pain. It’s just a case of undoing and correcting the causes that created the problem.
Here to explain more is Michael Furlong, the Clinic Director at the Balance Health Centre in Liverpool. Michael explains the causes of back pain and discusses some of the treatment options available.
What causes back pain?
Unresolved back pain can either mean that we’ve put off doing something about it, or it can mean that pain persists despite trying a variety of treatments. There can be many causes of back pain. A traumatic injury – perhaps a car accident – can create an instant problem, but in most cases the causes of the back pain have built up over time.
The less we move, the more our muscles weaken. The less we move, the more we lose flexibility in the joints as the tissues around them become stiff or tight. Sitting all day, slouching and generally not moving as much means that when we do stretch or twist or bend over incorrectly to lift something, we can strain our spine. We can also trigger a protective response in our body that causes it to lock up in a spasm.
There can be inflammation if there is minor injury to soft tissues (muscle) and the inflammation can irritate nerves and cause further pain.
What treatment options are there for back pain?
Manual therapy and exercise
Our bodies work as a single unit. If we sit for prolonged periods of time, the muscles in our hips (hip flexors) can become tight, and the hamstring muscles in the back of our legs can lose length. This combination changes our posture and puts undue strain on our backs.
In most cases where pain hasn’t been addressed for a long period, we begin by easing the tightness around the painful area and then we examine the tissues that connect the body as a whole.
The good news is that exercise doesn’t have to mean drill sergeants and bootcamps. In the time it takes to scroll through social media, we can all do some exercises that have a dramatic impact on our spinal health.
What about a slipped disc?
A “slipped disc” (correct term is a “bulging” or “herniated” disc) is a common category of back, neck and nerve pain that can be persistent.
The intervertebral disc is a sponge-like shock absorber that sits between the bones of our spine (vertebrae). If we think of the vertebrae in the spine like a stack of cotton reels, the discs in between are like mini-donuts that can be squashed in all directions. This is why we can bend to the side, backwards and forwards as well as twist.
As we get older, the disc walls can become weaker. These days, the number one enemy of the disc is the way we sit and slouch. Poor posture and a lack of activity puts a lot of pressure on the disc. The disc is unable to stay healthy and recover adequately from this slow bombardment. Over time, the discs can weaken and become vulnerable.
Sudden or small movements can cause the toothpaste-like centre of the disc to push out and cause the walls of the disc to bulge. In some cases, the centre of the disc can push out through the disc wall itself. At any given time, we may have slight bulges in our discs and the body has a natural correction and healing mechanisms, so it isn’t a problem. Movement or rather, correct movement, is especially beneficial for disc health.
Hitting a nerve
If the bulging disc wall presses against a nerve as it exits the spine, the result can be shooting pain or dull aching pain. If the centre of the disc pushes out through the wall, then the pain can be especially intense. It also causes additional chemical irritation to the nerves as the area becomes inflamed.
Such a disc bulge usually happens at the bottom of the spine. This is the area where nerves leave the spine and travel down through the buttocks to control the legs. This sciatic nerve is a source of real pain, and even agony, for some people. The pain condition is called sciatica.
The body can go into spasm when it senses an injury. The spasm is like a cramp sensation. Our muscles lock-up thinking they need to prevent further movement and possible further damage. This, in itself, is incredibly painful and combined with nerve pain, is doubly bad.
Physical therapy can address most cases of sciatica caused by a bulging or herniated disc. The body has its healing mechanisms. A skilful practitioner will work to relieve the muscle spasm and then work on tissues to free movement, while gentle exercises strengthen supporting muscles.
Over a series of treatments, pain can subside and, gradually, normal movement returns.
Therapy to decompress the spine
When a condition has built up over a long time, the tissues around the spine can become extremely stiff and immobile. The discs in our spine rely on movement to replenish fluid and nutrients. If the joints become compressed, which is compounded by pain, it can be very challenging to restore mobility and function to help the disc.
IDD therapy is a computer-controlled spinal decompression treatment that practitioners use to decompress the affected spinal segments.
This non-surgical treatment sees patients lie fully clothed on the table of the Accu SPINA machine.
They’re connected to the machine by ergonomic pelvis and chest harnesses and then a gentle force pulls the pelvic harness at a precise angle.
The way the force is applied means that we can take pressure off the affected spinal segment and importantly, gently stretch and work the tissues. This is done through a series of stretching cycles to help release muscle spasm and improve mobility.
Patients have a series of 25-minute sessions on the Accu SPINA machine. IDD therapy treatment is combined with hands-on treatment and exercise. This again helps address some of the other underlying causes that led to the problem manifesting in the first place.
By decompressing the disc, restoring mobility and taking pressure off nerves, you can make significant improvement and return to a pain-free life.
Other options for back pain
There are many causes of pain. Age-related back pain from conditions like arthritis can lead to restricted movement. You may see some improvement with gentle activity and hands-on treatment to give relief. This also works to preserve and maintain function, i.e. preventing further deterioration.
Pain management is a term to describe where pain persists and, usually, pain medication or injections are given. A pain consultant will discuss the available options depending on the severity of the pain. Pain medication can help ease pain and ideally provide a means to get some improved activity levels.
In some cases, surgery may be an option. Spinal sugery has an important place in spine care. It’s generally given as a last resort once all other non-invasive options have been exhausted.