MRI and x-ray for low back pain are surprisingly unreliable,1 because things like bulging discs usually aren’t a deal,2 most back pain goes away on its own,3 and trigger points (“muscle knots”) are common and can be alarmingly intense but aren’t dangerous.4 Most patients are much better off when they feel confident about these things. The power of justified, rational confidence is a huge factor in back pain.5 Sadly, many healthcare professionals continue to perpetuate the idea of fragile backs,6 which undermines that valuable confidence.
Start in a runner’s lunge, right leg forward with knee over ankle and left knee on ground with top of your foot flat on the mat. Slowly lift torso and rest hands lightly on right thigh. Lean hips forward slightly, keeping right knee behind toes, and feel the stretch in the left hip flexor. Hold here, or for a deeper stretch, raise arms overhead, biceps by ears. Hold for at least 30 seconds, then repeat on opposite side.
Whether you lift heavy items for your job or simply have a slipped disk from a pesky athletic injury, lower back pain is likely to plague you at some point in your life. Low back pain can result from an acute injury or from chronic overuse that leads to arthritis. This, in turn, can break down the fluid-filled disks in your spine that act as shock absorbers. Whatever the cause, there are some practices you can do to strengthen your back and keep lower back pain at bay.
Acupuncture is no better than placebo, usual care, or sham acupuncture for nonspecific acute pain or sub-chronic pain. For those with chronic pain, it improves pain a little more than no treatment and about the same as medications, but it does not help with disability. This pain benefit is only present right after treatment and not at follow-up. Acupuncture may be a reasonable method to try for those with chronic pain that does not respond to other treatments like conservative care and medications.
The condition is cauda equina syndrome. It involves “acute loss of function of the neurologic elements (nerve roots) of the spinal canal below the termination (conus) of the spinal cord,” where the nerves spread out like a horse (equina) tail. Again, this condition causes symptoms in the “saddle” of the body: butt, groin, inner thighs. BACK TO TEXT
“Red flags” are signs or symptoms that something medically ominous may be going on. Red flags are not reliable, and their presence is not a diagnosis. When you have some red flags, it only indicates a need to look more closely. Sometimes red flags are missing there really is something serious going on … and sometimes they are a false alarm.18 Check off all that apply … hopefully none or few or only the least alarming of them!
Mechanical pain is often called back strain because it is linked with the movement, or "the mechanics" of the spine. This type of pain occurs when injury to the spine's discs, facet joints, ligaments, or muscles results in inflammation. It is called mechanical pain because it relates to the mechanics of your spine. The more you use your back, the more it hurts.
Along with mobility and strength exercises, it's a good idea to do some flexibility work on a regular basis, especially as the season progresses and you start increasing your training mileage. Yoga is a great option—variations of hip openers and other poses can really help the overall function of your hips. The following stretches will help increase flexibility in your hips.
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Tight hip flexors can also make it harder for your glutes to activate—since they're opposing muscle groups, when one is really tight the other becomes lengthened. When a muscle is more lengthened than it should be, it takes away some of its ability to contract. When your glutes are in this compromised position, it can cause other muscles to do more work than they should, making your workouts less efficient and sometimes, increasing your risk of injury.
That is, the parts of your body that touch a saddle when riding a horse: groin, buttock, and inner thighs. I experienced rather intense, terrifying awareness of symptoms in this area in the aftermath of my wife’s car accident in early 2010. With a mangled T12 vertebrae, she was at real risk of exactly this problem. Fortunately, she escaped that quite serious problem. But, sheesh, I was vigilant about it for a while! “Honey, any numbness in your saddle area today?” BACK TO TEXT
Brace your core and bend your knees to lower down into a split squat. Your left knee should ideally form a 90-degree angle so that your thigh is parallel to the ground, and your right knee is hovering above the floor. (Quick position check: your left foot should be stepped out far enough that you can do this without letting your left knee go past your left toes—if you can't, hop your left foot out a bit farther away from the bench.)
Hip pain is a common symptom experienced by many people. This condition can range from mild discomfort to severe pain that limits activities of daily living or functional mobility. Hip pain may prevent you from enjoying your normal work and recreational activities. When you visit a PT for hip pain, he or she will likely investigate the cause of your pain to help treat it properly.
4. Just swing it. For the front-to-back hip swing stretch, lie on the left side with hips stacked, propped up on the left elbow. Bend the left leg to a 90-degree angle and raise the right leg to hip level with toes pointed. Keep abs tight and swing the right leg all the way in front, then swing it all the way to the back, squeezing the booty along the way. Switch sides.
The lumbar (or lower back) region is made up of five vertebrae (L1–L5), sometimes including the sacrum. In between these vertebrae are fibrocartilaginous discs, which act as cushions, preventing the vertebrae from rubbing together while at the same time protecting the spinal cord. Nerves come from and go to the spinal cord through specific openings between the vertebrae, providing the skin with sensations and messages to muscles. Stability of the spine is provided by the ligaments and muscles of the back and abdomen. Small joints called facet joints limit and direct the motion of the spine.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) uses a magnetic force instead of radiation to create a computer-generated image. Unlike x-ray, which shows only bony structures, MRI scans also produce images of soft tissues such as muscles, ligaments, tendons, and blood vessels. An MRI may be ordered if a problem such as infection, tumor, inflammation, disc herniation or rupture, or pressure on a nerve is suspected. MRI is a noninvasive way to identify a condition requiring prompt surgical treatment. However, in most instances, unless there are “red flags” in the history or physical exam, an MRI scan is not necessary during the early phases of low back pain.
Shingles (herpes zoster) is an acute infection of the nerves that supply sensation to the skin, generally at one or several spinal levels and on one side of the body (right or left). Patients with shingles usually have had chickenpox earlier in life. The herpes virus that causes chickenpox is believed to exist in a dormant state within the spinal nerve roots long after the chickenpox resolves. In people with shingles, this virus reactivates to cause infection along the sensory nerve, leading to nerve pain and usually an outbreak of shingles (tiny blisters on the same side of the body and at the same nerve level). The back pain in patients with shingles of the lumbar area can precede the skin rash by days. Successive crops of tiny blisters can appear for several days and clear with crusty inflammation in one to two weeks. Patients occasionally are left with a more chronic nerve pain (postherpetic neuralgia). Treatment can involve symptomatic relief with lotions, such as calamine, or medications, such as acyclovir (Zovirax), for the infection and pregabalin (Lyrica) or lidocaine (Lidoderm) patches for the pain.
Since the hip flexors are so easy to overuse and strain, it is important to stretch them before exercise or strenuous activity. Because of their connectedness to other muscle groups in the legs (like the quadriceps), it is important to stretch the muscle group as a whole, not individually. This ensures that the entire area is warmed up and ready for the strain of exercise or activity, not just one or two individual muscles.
Some of these red flags are much less red than others, especially depending on the circumstances. For instance, “weight loss” is common and often the sign of successful diet! (Well, at least temporarily successful, anyway. 😃) Obviously, if you know of a harmless reason why you have a red flag symptom, it isn’t really a red flag (duh!). But every single actual red flag — in combination with severe low back pain that’s been going on for several weeks — is definitely a good reason to get yourself checked out.