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The Truth About Lower Back Pain

Last updated: 06-27-2020

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The Truth About Lower Back Pain

You bend down to tie your shoes and your back suddenly goes out. It hurts so badly you can barely stand up or move at all. You surrender yourself to the couch, sweating and grimacing,

imagining a world in which initiating everyday tasks comes without consequence.

The Lower Back Pain Club has many members: Nearly 65 million Americans have reported a recent episode, according to the Georgetown University Health Policy Institute. Back pain is one of the most common reasons people see a doctor or miss a day of work.

Your lower back can hurt for numerous reasons, from trauma to overuse to sitting too much. More often than not, it’s an accumulation of issues that cause your back to finally say enough is enough, says Michele Vincent, DC, faculty clinician, and associate professor at Northwestern Health Sciences University.

“People are often mystified. They reached into the refrigerator and their back went out. It’s usually just the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” Vincent says. “What is most relevant is that people do the same things over and over, day after day, for eight to 10 hours a day. The lower back gets weakened, and down the road they end up having lower back pain.” 

The condition involves the lumbar spine—the five vertebrae that support the weight of the upper body—plus the pelvis, sacrum, and sacroiliac joints. Joints in that region become restricted and don’t function well, irritating the nearby muscles, connective tissue, ligaments, and tendons, Vincent explains. Acute cases result when the muscles, joints, and connective tissue become inflamed and fatigued, eventually causing severe lower back pain. By definition, acute pain is self-limited discomfort that typically lasts anywhere from a few moments to several months.

Other times, the pain stems from chronic issues like arthritis, osteoporosis, or skeletal irregularities like scoliosis. Bulging disks also can be the culprit, when the cushion between the spinal vertebrae presses on nearby nerves.

To find out what’s going on, chiropractors will typically complete a physical exam and medical history, then use X-ray to confirm their assessment. “X-rays advance a diagnosis and help us develop the most appropriate ways of treating the area,” says Zach Zachman, DC, a chiropractor and Northwestern professor.

“One of our main goals in health care is do no harm, so we want to make sure our care doesn’t make anything worse,” he adds. “We have to know if there are underlying conditions and rule out things like a fracture.”

X-rays aren’t necessary for every case, such as when people are seeing a chiropractor for prevention, or they have pain for obvious reasons like spending long hours sitting and studying for finals. But they are very helpful for identifying underlying concerns like cancer, an infection, or for monitoring the progression of scoliosis or similar conditions, Zachman says.

Diagnosis in hand, chiropractors can help your back feel better rather quickly, Vincent says. Treatments often involve restoring movement to troubled joints with manual manipulation, followed by ultrasound to reduce inflammation or electrical muscle stimulation to wear out and relax affected muscles. Outside of the office, pain relievers and ice also do wonders to promote healing.

For acute pain, you often will see a chiropractor for a handful of treatments as your body retrains its joints and muscles. “As we retrain the body in its proper functions, your pain level goes down, and then you can do more things,” Vincent says.

Couple such treatments with daily stretching to reinforce your chiropractic care and build muscle strength. Vincent recommends:

Stand against the wall or lie on the floor with your knees bent. Lift and lower your pelvis and hold for five seconds, then repeat. Do this stretch in the morning when you wake up and before you go to sleep.

Do this stretch by pulling your knee gently to your chest, holding for 5-7 seconds, and repeat. Make sure to stretch each leg.

This stretch helps tight glutes and hips. While lying down, cross your ankle over the other leg’s bent knee or raised and straightened leg. Then pull your bent knee toward your chest and hold.

No matter your age, there are steps you can take to prevent lower back pain from starting or returning. It’s important to stay active with any exercise you enjoy. Vincent suggests setting a reminder or alarm to prompt you to get up and move; it’s hard on your back to sit for hours at a time.

It’s important to keep a healthy weight and reduce your intake of sugar, a big culprit for inflammation. Also, ask your health care provider about taking additional magnesium, a mineral that supports muscle and nerve function, she says.

Sleep on your back to take pressure off of your lumbar spine. And make sure to get enough sleep—good advice for people with or without back pain.

Periodic visits to the chiropractor for check-ups and adjustments, if needed, will help you maintain a healthy back. “Baby changes can make all the difference for your back,” Vincent adds. “We want to help you do the things you want to do and enjoy life.”

Located in Bloomington, Northwestern Health Sciences University is a pioneer in integrative natural health care education, offering degree programs in chiropractic, acupuncture, Chinese medicine, massage therapy, medical assisting, medical laboratory programs, post-bac/pre-health, radiation therapy, and B.S. completion. At press time, its Bloomington clinic is open to the public for acute cases, and services include chiropractic care, Chinese medicine, naturopathic medicine, and physical therapy. Massage therapy is not being offered.

Telemedicine is a convenient way to care for yourself during these unprecedented times. Appointment times vary depending on the service. Providers are part of Northwestern Health Sciences University, a non-profit industry leader in integrative and natural healthcare education that provides access to the latest evidence and state-of-the-art technology so you get the natural solutions you truly need.

On Wednesday, June 24 at 12pm, Amy Mueller Anderson, BCTMB, BCSI, hosts "Your Foot Core, Resiliency from the Ground Up," a webinar discussing the importance of the foot core in order to maintain a resilient foot structure, and the implications this can have on the lower back and other areas of the body. 

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