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Is Physical Therapy Effective for Back Pain?

You can chalk it up to taking one-too-many swings at the driving range, overdoing it in the garden, that weekend honey-do list of home repairs, or a chronic reminder that you’re just getting older. No matter how you got the back pain that is impacting your daily life, what you’re experiencing is more common than you might think. In fact, research shows that more than 80% of the population will experience an episode of low back pain at some point in their lives.

While over-the-counter pain relievers, anti-inflammatory medications, and ice packs are the go-to method of treatment for many minor ailments, those may not be the best option to help you find long-term relief. Instead, many physicians of back pain sufferers will recommend physical therapy because of its conservative nature and propensity to lead to relief that lasts. Still wondering if physical therapy is effective for back pain? Read on to learn more.

Why Undergo Physical Therapy for Back Pain?

There are many explanations why someone would undergo physical therapy to treat back pain, but perhaps the most significant is because it can promote healing. While it might seem like resting on the couch and doing nothing will aid in recovery, experts caution that inactivity could actually lead to an increase in pain or more intense sensations.

Unlike back surgery — which hundreds of thousands of people each year undergo — the movements, stretches, and exercises that a physical therapist performs won’t result in hospital stays, downtime away from work or loved ones, or a lengthy recovery period.

Sources of Back Pain that Physical Therapy Can Help

When we talk about back pain, we often refer to low back pain that affects the lumbar spine. However, you can injure any part of your back, including the middle back (thoracic spine) and your upper back or neck (cervical spine).

Back pain can flare up for an assortment of reasons, but a handful of conditions tend to cause most of the problems. Have you ever tried to lift something a little too heavy and felt pain either immediately or the next day after waking up? Chances are you’ve strained or sprained a muscle in the area. Muscle strains and sprains typically clear up on their own with some light stretching and movement, but there are times when a physical therapist is needed to restore the muscle and surrounding tissue back to what it once was.

A bulging spinal disc is another common ailment that can trigger significant pain. The best way to imagine spinal discs is to picture jelly donuts. Though the outside of a jelly donut can be firm, the inside is gelatinous and gooey. Squeeze that donut on one side, and the jelly is bound to protrude from the other. When you have a bulging disc, the “jelly” inside your spinal disc can start to extend beyond its tough outer layer when you sit for too long, lift something too heavy, or bend forward too much. The protruding “jelly” then pushes on or pinches a nearby nerve, causing pain that can be so intense it takes your breath away.

There may also be times when pain will begin in your back but travel down one of your extremities, as is the case with a common condition called sciatica. This condition that irritates the sciatic nerve can be caused by other, more minor woes like a herniated disc or spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal cord canal). It’s also possible to develop sciatica by carrying bulky items like large wallets or golf balls in your back pocket and sitting on hard surfaces for too long. Patients with sciatica are excellent candidates for physical therapy.

Other painful conditions that physical therapy may be able to help include arthritis and degenerative disc disease.

While the specific injury or ailment will always dictate the course of treatment, there are some tried-and-true solutions that most physical therapists will recommend. For example, a progression of exercises related to repeated motion can effectively relieve pressure and pain caused by a bulging disc. Similarly, stabilization exercises that strengthen and retrain muscles around the spine can help when spine deviations are causing the pain. Lastly, manipulation or mobilization, exercises that involve repetitive movements of the body, can alleviate stiffness.

Science-Backed Benefits of Using Physical Therapy to Treat Back Pain

There have been a variety of peer-reviewed research studies touting the efficacy of physical therapy for treating back pain. One of the most noteworthy, a study that appeared in the Annals of Internal Medicine, found that physical therapy was just as effective and carried considerably fewer risks than surgery for spinal stenosis in the lower back.

Another scientific review on low back pain found that patients who completed a physical therapy program adhering to clinical guidelines encountered shorter length of care, needed fewer prescription medications and visits to the doctor, and had the benefit of greater cost savings than patients who tried other treatments. Authors of studies published in both American Family Physician and Spine have echoed those same sentiments, detailing how physical therapy can decrease pain and reduce the risk of another painful episode or surgery down the line.

If You’re Experiencing Back Pain, Athletic Physical Therapy Can Help

There’s no reason you have to live through debilitating back pain. If you’re interested in learning how the skilled and knowledgeable team at Athletic Physical Therapy can use physical therapy to get you back to doing the things you love, reach out to us today. Our goal is to help patients reduce pain, restore motion, and regain strength — and we can’t wait to help you.