Stop focusing on a specific diagnosis. Up to 85% of low back pain can be classified as "non-specific." This means that the origin of your pain cannot be localized to one specific structure or problem. While common diagnostic tests for low back pain can show the bones, discs, and joints with great detail, no test can tell the exact cause of your pain with 100% accuracy.
Following any period of prolonged inactivity, a regimen of low-impact exercises is advised. Speed walking, swimming, or stationary bike riding 30 minutes daily can increase muscle strength and flexibility. Yoga also can help stretch and strengthen muscles and improve posture. Consult a physician for a list of low-impact, age-appropriate exercises that are specifically targeted to strengthening lower back and abdominal muscles.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) relieve pain and inflammation and include OTC formulations (ibuprofen, ketoprofen, and naproxen sodium). Several others, including a type of NSAID called COX-2 inhibitors, are available only by prescription. Long-term use of NSAIDs has been associated with stomach irritation, ulcers, heartburn, diarrhea, fluid retention, and in rare cases, kidney dysfunction and cardiovascular disease. The longer a person uses NSAIDs the more likely they are to develop side effects. Many other drugs cannot be taken at the same time a person is treated with NSAIDs because they alter the way the body processes or eliminates other medications.
The story of actor Andy Whitfield is a disturbing and educational example of a case that met these conditions — for sure the first two, and probably the third as well if we knew the details. Whitfield was the star of the hit TV show Spartacus (which is worthwhile, but rated very, very R17). The first sign of the cancer that killed him in 2011 was steadily worsening back pain. It’s always hard to diagnose a cancer that starts this way, but Whitfield was in the middle of intense physical training to look the part of history’s most famous gladiator. Back pain didn’t seem unusual at first, and some other symptoms may have been obscured. Weight loss could have even seemed like a training victory at first! It was many long months before he was diagnosed — not until the back pain was severe and constant. A scan finally revealed a large tumour pressing against his spine.
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.”
If you’re lucky, you won’t notice your hips are tight until you’re trying to do the Half Pigeon pose in your yoga class. But if you’re not so fortunate, your tight hips are making themselves known every time you so much as walk to the bathroom or sit on the couch—expressing themselves in the form of lower back pain and muscle stiffness. Tight hips can even shorten your stride, slowing your 5K goal time!
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Icing a joint that’s inflamed because of arthritis or bursitis can lower inflammation and help with hip pain. “If it’s very painful, I sometimes tell patients to ice four or five times daily for about 10 to 15 minutes,” says Amy Humphrey, DPT, a physical therapist at Body Dynamics, Inc. in Arlington, Va. Use an ice pack, wrap a towel around it, and put it where you feel the pain.
Spondylolisthesis. This condition occurs when one vertebra slips over the adjacent one. There are 5 types of spondylolisthesis but the most common are secondary to a defect or fracture of the pars (between the facet joints) or mechanical instability of the facet joints (degenerative). The pain can be caused by instability (back) or compression of the nerves (leg).
Don’t medically investigate back pain until it’s met at least three criteria: (1) it’s been bothering you for more than about 6 weeks; (2) it’s severe and/or not improving, or actually getting worse; and (3) there’s at least one other “red flag” (age over 55 or under 20, painful to light tapping, fever/malaise, weight loss, slow urination, incontinence, groin numbness, a dragging toe, or symptoms in both legs like numbness and/or tingling and/or weakness).
Emerging technologies such as X-rays gave physicians new diagnostic tools, revealing the intervertebral disc as a source for back pain in some cases. In 1938, orthopedic surgeon Joseph S. Barr reported on cases of disc-related sciatica improved or cured with back surgery. As a result of this work, in the 1940s, the vertebral disc model of low back pain took over, dominating the literature through the 1980s, aiding further by the rise of new imaging technologies such as CT and MRI. The discussion subsided as research showed disc problems to be a relatively uncommon cause of the pain. Since then, physicians have come to realize that it is unlikely that a specific cause for low back pain can be identified in many cases and question the need to find one at all as most of the time symptoms resolve within 6 to 12 weeks regardless of treatment.
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If you develop a sudden onset of low back pain, a visit to your physical therapist can help you determine the correct things to do to manage your acute pain. Your physical therapist should be able to analyze your lifestyle, movements, and overall medical history to help determine the likely cause of your pain. By focusing on these mechanical causes of back pain, you can make a change that may give you relief.
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.