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  » Medical Topic Archive  »  Low Back Pain

Low Back Pain

Low back pain affects 60 to 80 percent of the adult U.S. population at one time or another. Low back problems affect the spine's flexibility, stability, and strength, which can cause pain, discomfort, and stiffness.

What Causes It?

Low back pain is usually caused by strain from lifting, twisting, or bending. However, some low back pain can be a symptom of a more serious condition, such as an infection, a rheumatic or arthritic condition, or ovarian cysts. It may be caused by a ruptured or bulging disk, the strong, spongy, gel-filled cushions that lie between each vertebra. Compression fractures of the bones in the spine can also cause low back pain, especially in older women with osteoporosis. In addition, poor overall fitness, smoking, and general life dissatisfaction increase a person's risk for low back problems.


What to Expect at Your Provider's Office

Your health care provider will ask you to stand, sit, and move. He or she will likely check your reflexes and perhaps your response to touch, slight heat, or a pinprick. He or she may also recommend strength testing on a treadmill. You may also need a blood test, X rays, a magnetic resonance imaging scan, or computed tomography scan.

Treatment Options

In general, low back pain can be relieved and prevented with lifestyle changes. Exercising to strengthen your muscles, maintaining a healthy weight, and practicing good posture lowers your risk. Learning to bend and lift properly, sleeping on a firm mattress, sitting in supportive chairs, and wearing supportive shoes are important factors. For long-term back pain, your provider may recommend stronger medications or surgery.

Complementary and Alternative Therapies

Alternative therapies can be effective for easing muscle tension, correcting spinal imbalances, relieving discomfort, and averting long-term back problems by improving muscle strength and joint stability.


Herbs

Herbs may be used as dried extracts (capsules, powders, teas), glycerites (glycerine extracts), or tinctures (alcohol extracts). Teas should be made with 1 tsp. herb per cup of hot water. Steep covered 5 to 10 minutes for leaf or flowers, 10 to 20 minutes for roots. Mix three to six of the following (one cup tea or 30 to 60 drops of tincture three to six times per day).

 Relaxants: Black haw (Viburnum prunifolium) relaxant; petasites (Petasites hybridus), acute muscle spasm, not for long-term use; valerian (Valeriana officinalis), antispasmodic, especially with sleeplessness; wild yam (Dioscorea villosa), antispasmodic, especially with joint pains and long-term stress; turmeric anti-inflammatory, especially with digestive problems; Jamaica dogwood (Piscidia piscipula), relaxant

 Pain relief: White willow bark (Salix alba), anti-inflammatory and analgesic; devil's claw (Harpagophytum procumbens), analgesic, anti-inflammatory; St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum), anti-inflammatory

 Circulatory stimulants: rosemary leaves (Rosmarinus officinalis), especially with digestive problems; gingko (Ginkgo biloba), especially with poor circulation

 Topical treatment may be helpful for acute problems. Mix 1 to 2 drops of essential oil or 5 to 10 drops of tincture into 1 tbsp. vegetable oil, and rub into the affected area. St. John's wort for nerve pain; leopard's bane (Arnica montana) anti-inflammatory, external use only; lobelia (Lobelia inflata) antispasmodic

Homeopathy
Some of the most common remedies for this condition are listed below.

 Aesculus for dull pain with muscle weakness
 Arnica montana especially with pain as a result of trauma
 Colocynthis for weakness and cramping in the small of the back
 Gnaphalium for sciatica that alternates with numbness
 Lycopodium for burning pain, especially with gas or bloating
 Rhus toxicodendron for stiffness and pain in the small of the back


Physical Medicine

 Chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation can help relieve pain.
 Contrast hydrotherapy. Alternate hot and cold applications. Alternate three minutes hot with one minute cold. Repeat three times to complete one set. Do two to three sets per day.
 Castor oil pack. Apply oil directly to skin, cover with a clean soft cloth and plastic wrap. Place a heat source over the pack and let sit for 30 to 60 minutes. Do this for three consecutive days.


Acupuncture
Reviews of scientific studies have found some support for the use of acupuncture for low back pain. In addition, acupuncturists frequently report success in treating low back pain and the National Institutes of Health recommend acupuncture as a reasonable treatment option for this condition. An acupuncturist's management of low back pain often involves a comprehensive approach including specialized massage, application of warming herbal oils, and patient education.

Treating low back pain with acupuncture can be complex because many meridians (including the kidney, bladder, liver, and gallbladder) affect this area of the body. Local treatment to the painful areas and related sore points is often performed as well, with needles and/or moxibustion (a technique in which the herb mugwort is burned over specific acupuncture points).


Chiropractic
Spinal manipulation is among the most extensively studied and accepted forms of treatment for acute low back pain. According to a comprehensive review conducted by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, spinal manipulation and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are the two most effective treatments for acute low back pain. Of these, only spinal manipulation was judged to both relieve pain and restore function.

Spinal manipulation also appears to be effective for chronic low back pain, but the evidence is less conclusive. In one study, 174 individuals with chronic low back pain were randomized to receive either spinal manipulation or NSAID treatments. Both groups were also taught strength training exercises. Participants in both groups improved significantly over time, but those who received spinal manipulation required less pain medication at a 1-year follow-up visit. In another study, individuals with chronic low back pain who were treated with spinal manipulation reported a significant reduction in pain compared to those in a control group who only received pamphlets about exercise and body mechanics. Pain relief continued even after the spinal manipulation treatments were completed.

Massage
Massage may be helpful both acutely and to prevent chronic problems.



Special Considerations
Chronic low back problems can interfere with everyday activities, sleep, and concentration. When symptoms are severe, your mood and sexuality may be affected. While depression is usually not the cause of chronic low back pain, it often complicates treatment.

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