Bone scans are used to detect and monitor infection, fracture, or disorders in the bone. A small amount of radioactive material is injected into the bloodstream and will collect in the bones, particularly in areas with some abnormality. Scanner-generated images can be used to identify specific areas of irregular bone metabolism or abnormal blood flow, as well as to measure levels of joint disease.
Disc degeneration remains a key cause of chronic low back pain and the pain often persists despite surgery. NIH-funded basic science and preclinical studies are investigating molecular-level mechanisms that cause discs in the spine to degenerate, as well as protective mechanisms involved in disc remodeling that may diminish with advancing age. Such studies may help identify future therapeutic strategies to block degenerative mechanisms or promote remodeling processes. NIH also is funding early research on stem cell approaches to promote disc regeneration and rejuvenate cells of the nucleus pulposus, the jelly-like substance in the center of intervertebral discs that loses water content as people age.
Initial management with non–medication based treatments is recommended. NSAIDs are recommended if these are not sufficiently effective. Normal activity should be continued as much as the pain allows. Medications are recommended for the duration that they are helpful. A number of other options are available for those who do not improve with usual treatment. Opioids may be useful if simple pain medications are not enough, but they are not generally recommended due to side effects. Surgery may be beneficial for those with disc-related chronic pain and disability or spinal stenosis. No clear benefit has been found for other cases of non-specific low back pain. Low back pain often affects mood, which may be improved by counseling or antidepressants. Additionally, there are many alternative medicine therapies, including the Alexander technique and herbal remedies, but there is not enough evidence to recommend them confidently. The evidence for chiropractic care and spinal manipulation is mixed.
How to: Stand tall, feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, toes pointed out at 45-degree angles (a). Keep your back straight, knees over toes and your weight in the heels of your feet (b). Engage your glutes and thighs as you lower into a deep squat until thighs parallel to the ground (or as close as you can get them) (c). Powering through your heels, push up to return to starting position (d). Repeat.
Squats. Using a squat machine will strengthen your quadriceps muscles on the front of your thigh and the hamstring muscles on the back of your thigh, both of which attach to your hip and give it support. The squat machine may be vertical, in which case you’ll start in a standing position and bend your knees until your thighs are parallel to the floor, or it may be on a sliding incline board.
Luckily, you don’t have to quit your day job or forgo spin class to loosen them up. Simply stretching those hips can get your body back in alignment, increase your mobility (and thus your exercise performance) and maybe even ease pesky back pain, Moore says. “Given the amount of time we sit [each] day and the stress we put our bodies under, hip-opening moves are a necessary party of our daily routine.”
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How to: Sit on the floor with knees bent so that your right shin is positioned in front of you, your left shin behind you and your left hip dropped all of the way to the floor (a). Inhale and press your left hip forward until you feel a stretch in the front of your hip (b). Exhale and press left hip back to the floor. That’s one rep (c). Complete six to eight reps, working each time to increase your range of motion. Repeat on the opposite side.
Exercise therapy is effective in decreasing pain and improving function for those with chronic low back pain. It also appears to reduce recurrence rates for as long as six months after the completion of program and improves long-term function. There is no evidence that one particular type of exercise therapy is more effective than another. The Alexander technique appears useful for chronic back pain, and there is tentative evidence to support the use of yoga. Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) has not been found to be effective in chronic low back pain. Evidence for the use of shoe insoles as a treatment is inconclusive. Peripheral nerve stimulation, a minimally-invasive procedure, may be useful in cases of chronic low back pain that do not respond to other measures, although the evidence supporting it is not conclusive, and it is not effective for pain that radiates into the leg.
Several NIH-funded clinical trials and other studies in patients aim to improve treatment options and prevention strategies for chronic low back pain, as well as add to the evidence base about existing treatments. A multi-year multicenter study called the Spine Patient Outcomes Research Trial (SPORT) compared the most commonly used surgical and nonsurgical treatments for patients with the three most common diagnoses for which spine surgery is performed: intervertebral disc herniation, spinal stenosis, and degenerative spondylisthesis. SPORT represented the largest clinical investigation to date looking at treatment results for these disabling and costly causes of chronic low back pain.
Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.
Vertebroplasty and kyphoplasty are minimally invasive treatments to repair compression fractures of the vertebrae caused by osteoporosis. Vertebroplasty uses three-dimensional imaging to assist in guiding a fine needle through the skin into the vertebral body, the largest part of the vertebrae. A glue-like bone cement is then injected into the vertebral body space, which quickly hardens to stabilize and strengthen the bone and provide pain relief. In kyphoplasty, prior to injecting the bone cement, a special balloon is inserted and gently inflated to restore height to the vertebral structure and reduce spinal deformity.