Low Back Pain and why Physical Therapy Works!
Posted on 9/13/2017 by Andrew Piraino, P.T., DPT, OCS, CSCS
Low back pain is common. It’s so common that about 80 percent of adults will at one point experience this condition. It ranks among one of the top reasons to see a physician and costs the United States more than $100 billion dollars every year.
When faced with an episode of low back pain, it’s easy to go into crisis mode. You may be routed through various specialists and receive various imaging tests, such as X-rays and MRI. These tests can reveal scary findings, such as “herniated discs,” but don’t panic.
First, many of these findings are normal. Researchers have found that in adults without low back pain, two of out three have an abnormality at one disc or more. This makes imaging of limited use, unless something like a fracture is present that needs surgical management. Physicians agree; the American Academy of Family Physicians recommends against any imaging for low back pain for the first six weeks unless serious signs are present, such as trauma.
Often, you may be referred for physical therapy. You may have some familiarity with various exercises and hands-on treatment provided by therapists. But why is physical therapy unique, and what exactly does it do?
Physical therapists today are doctoral-level trained specialists in human movement, completing four years of undergraduate education, three years of doctoral training and often further residency or fellowship training in addition to board certification. Poor movements and postures can cause low back pain and, therefore, physical therapists are optimally equipped to address the cause of the problem rather than treating the symptoms. Just like the song lyrics to ‘Dem Bones,’ each area of the body affects another, which is what physical therapists are trained to observe and address.
For example, take a truck driver who has worsening low back pain with sitting in his truck and bending (pictured below). While a massage at his back area makes him better temporarily, his pain always returns several days later. A physical therapist may look at this driver and find he has tight hamstrings (the muscles on the back of the thigh). Every time he straightens his right leg to reach his pedal, his tight hamstrings pull his back into a bent position (Figure B). And so, all day long, as he drives, his back is bent over and over while he operates the gas and brake pedals. Try sitting up straight and then straightening your knee. You may find it’s hard to do!
Low Back Pain
A - Driver at rest.
B - Driver's hamstring pulls on his pelvis and bends his back whenever he tries to use the pedal.
C - Driver after physical therapy treatment to improve his hamstring flexibility... no more dysfunction!
While physical therapy may provide hands-on treatment to alleviate pain, it would also include exercise to decrease stiffness of his hamstrings, which would allow him to move without causing his back to compensate every time (Figure C). Therefore, our truck driver is able to sit and drive all day without pain. Rather than seeking symptom relief, he now knows what caused the pain, and the exercises and positioning to prevent it from returning.
This is a simple example, but it appreciates the entire body’s contribution to movement and pain, rather than focusing on the area of pain alone. Hopefully this demystifies what physical therapists do, and how they work to optimize each person’s movement and prevent their painful condition from returning!
If you are experiencing low back pain, please call one of our conveniently located centers in your area to experience the power of physical therapy today! For more information and to watch a brief informational video, please click here.
Andrew PirainoBy: Andrew Piraino, P.T., DPT, OCS, CSCS, treats at NovaCare in Pasadena, TX and is involved with our orthopaedic physical therapy residencies at the market and national level. He completed doctorate and residency training at the University of Southern California in 2012 and 2013, respectively, and is board certified in orthopaedics. Andrew specializes in orthopaedic movement dysfunction across the lifespan, from young, recreational athletes to adults with complex multi-system involvement.