Back pain: it’s one of the most common causes of disability and affects about 8 out of 10 of us at some point. For some people, their back pain comes with a specific underlying diagnosis, such as a muscle spasm, ligament sprain, degenerative disc disease, disc herniation, or even sciatica. For others, there’s simply no clear cause.
The good news is that physical therapy is shown to help people with back pain whether they have a specific diagnosis or not. In fact, PT is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as a preferred treatment for most types of chronic pain like back pain. I’d like to talk about why.
What Causes Back Pain?
Here’s a quick wellness assessment I want you to do right now: pause what you’re doing and check your posture.
Are you slouched in a chair? Are you standing up but hunched over a smartphone? The classic forward-head and rounded shoulders position, that most of us find ourselves in during the day can put a lot of tension on tissues in the spine. This includes the ligaments, joints, and discs. Over time, poor posture can also lead to weak core and pelvic floor muscles, reducing the support and stability that a spine needs.
Poor posture isn’t just a potential cause of back pain, however. For many of my patients, poor posture is a compensation for their discomfort. That is, their back already hurts for some other reason, so they put themselves in awkward positions in an attempt to find temporary relief.
What this means is that assessing and correcting your posture can be helpful for alleviating back pain. But it’s also important to tease out and address other underlying factors that are driving dysfunction.
With this in mind, additional risk factors for back pain include:
- Age: you’re more likely to experience back pain once you reach your third, fourth, or fifth decade of life
- Low fitness level: sedentary individuals or people who take a “weekend warrior” approach to their fitness are more likely to experience back pain, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
- Obesity: being overweight or obese, or gaining weight quickly, can increase stress on the back and increase your risk of other health conditions associated with back pain, such as arthritis and fibromyalgia
- Genetics: certain conditions like scoliosis or ankylosing spondylitis tend to run in families
- Occupational factors: back pain is common in people with physically demanding jobs that involve a lot of heavy lifting, twisting, or pushing—but it’s also common in people who are sedentary at work and sit in a chair most of the day
- Smoking: this bad habit reduces the amount of oxygen-rich blood flowing to spinal discs, which can cause them to thin and break down more quickly
- Heavy backpacks: this is a common culprit for kids and teens complaining of sore and achy backs
- Mental health: anxiety, depression, and other mood related disorders are associated with back pain, can increase muscle tension in the spine, and even influence a person’s perception of pain
Another surprising risk factor for back pain is having had back pain once before. A 2017 study published in Physical Therapy found that about a third of people who have an acute episode of low back pain will have back pain again. The same study found that for people with at least two prior back pain episodes, their odds of experiencing a recurrence within one year tripled.
I think there’s an important takeaway here: don’t hesitate to seek out professional help when your back hurts. Even if your back pain gets better on its own after a couple weeks, you still could have underlying issues that will increase your risk of another episode in the near future.
How PhysioFit Can Help
Physical therapy features multiple approaches that can help people find relief, but every approach is highly individualized to meet every patient’s unique needs and goals. But there is more than physical therapy options here at PhysioFit. We also offer a wide variety of fitness classes for those who feel like physical therapy isn’t right for them.
Generally, most people with back pain benefit from some combination of:
- Manual therapy
- Specific exercises aimed to facilitate tissue healing and improve core muscle strength, endurance, and coordination. This also improves range of motion in other areas like the shoulders and hips
- Movement and postural assessments aimed at improving alignment, body mechanics, and efficiency
- Patient education about the neuroscience of pain and the influence of mindset and belief on a person’s discomfort and long-term outcomes
We also know from the research that one of the best ways to improve and prevent spinal pain is to participate in regular aerobic exercise—things like walking, cycling, light jogging, and swimming. Physical therapists can be instrumental here! They help people feel good enough to start increasing their activity level again, safely and sustainably.
Physical therapy may even help people reduce their dependence on pain medications or even avoid spinal surgery—a huge benefit, since about 40% of people continue to struggle with back pain after surgery.
Are You Struggling With Chronic Symptoms?
Back pain can make it difficult to sleep, drive, and work—let alone go to the gym or participate in the activities you love. If you’re struggling with back pain and would like to see how physical therapy can help, contact PhysioFit Physical Therapy & Wellness today at (650) 947-8500 to schedule your first appointment.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kim Gladfelter, MPT, OCS, FAAOMPT
Women's Health Physical Therapy Specialist at PhysioFit Physical Therapy & Wellness
Kim Gladfelter is a physical therapist, Pilates instructor, educator, author, and co-founder of PhysioFit Physical Therapy & Wellness. She is known as a keen, well-rounded expert of healing through movement and women’s health specialist in the Silicon Valley area.
Kim has helped men and women of all ages to stay active and feel their best. She also writes about managing pain in her health columns, blogs and the local Los Altos Town Crier newspaper as well as reaches out to the local community, support groups, schools, libraries, and sports centers to advise and educate on body awareness and therapeutic exercise.