Low Back Pain: Rest vs. Exercise
in today’s blog I will address a problem that approximately 80% of Americans are faced with at least once during their lifetime and that many live with day in day out: Low Back Pain (LBP) aka lumbago.
This blog will provide some insights into the most common causes and treatment options of LBP and investigate whether rest or activity is more helpful when dealing with acute or chronic back pain.
The most common causes in younger adults:
- Injury or overuse
A sudden onset of pain and stiffness often after activity, a sudden movement or heavy lifting, is mostly caused by soft tissue injuries to muscles and ligaments in the back and along the spine such as muscle strains or sprains. Other causes that fall into the category of injury or overuse are injuries to the small facet joints of the spine or fractures of the bony processes of the spine (attachment points for muscles and tendons). Both types of injuries commonly heal on their own. A combination of rest, heat/ice applications, anti-inflammatory drugs and low back exercises improving spinal stability can be helpful treatment options.
- Nerve root compression
An Acute or chronic nerve root compression can be caused by a variety of problems. Some of the more common causes in younger adults are:
- A herniated disc: As discs degenerate and break down, the inner core of the disc starts to leak out through the outer portion applying sudden pressure on nerve endings.
- Isthmic Spondylolethesis occurs when a vertebra slips forward causing instability and nerve root compression. The reason for the slippage is often a small fracture in a piece of bone that connects the two joints on the back side of the spinal segment. Th fracture typically happens during childhood, starting to cause trouble in young adulthood.
- Lumbar Degenerative Disc Disease: Even though this is a degenerative disease it often affects young adults in their early 20’s. It refers to the breakdown of discs in between vertebrae leading to instability and inflammation.
- Sciatica: All of the previously mentioned causes of nerve root compression if effecting any of the major lumbar nerves can lead to Sciatica . Sciatica refers to radiating pain, weakness and numbness along the pathway of the nerves into the buttocks, legs and even feet. The pain can be worse in the feet and legs than in the back and is certainly more intense than the often dull aching pain resulting from strains or sprains.
The most common causes in older adults:
While older adults can experience the same pain related to the problems that apply to younger adults, they are more likely to experience chronic pain related to degenerative processes of the spine and it’s joints.
- Osteoarthritis effects most commonly the small joints of the spine, like the facet joints and the Sacro-Iliac joint between sacrum and ilium at the bottom of the spine. These degenerative joint changes (wear and tear on protective cartilage layers) can lead to inflammation of the joint area itself, causing instability, pain, and stiffness. In addition it can lead to the growth of bone spurs which again can apply pressure to the nerve roots. Osteoarthritis commonly effects other joints in the body as well, such as hips or knees causing gait changes leading to secondary pain in the low back due to compromised body mechanics.
- Spinal Stenosis refers to the degeneration of discs, vertebrae, muscles and tendons that make up the spinal column. This degenerative processes can lead to a choking (greek=stenosis) of the lumbar nerves causing increased leg pain with walking (pseudoclaudication) which improves almost immediately when sitting down.
- Osteoporosis is a condition in which the bone density degrades to the point of bone fractures. This condition is most common amongst post menopausal women. One of the most effected areas is the lumbar spine. Osteoporosis in the lumbar spine can result in compression fractures of the vertebra causing significant low back pain.
Less commonly found causes for low back pain worth mentioning are Ankylosing Spondylitis, bacterial infections and tumors of the spine.
- Heat and Cold applications are usually the first line of defense patients with low back pain are reaching for. Cold packs and ice have been hailed for many years as anti-inflammatory (antiphlogistic) and pain reducing (analgesic) treatment options. It is recommended to apply cold/ice for 15-20 minutes for the first 48 hours after injury. A newer line of thought questions the value of ice or cold packs as a form of anti-inflammatory treatment, because it leads to reduced blood circulation in the inflamed area, reducing the number of white blood cells (the body’s natural defense against inflammation) at the source of inflammation. However the cold will numb nerve endings and reduce impulse transmission speed validating it’s analgesic qualities. Try a damp cloth between skin and cold source for better conductivity and better results. If introducing ice as an anti inflammatory treatment I would recommend short ice massages. (Ice massage for LBP relief) The short introduction of cold triggers greater blood flow to the area and lead to an increase in the number of inflammation fighting white blood cells.
Heat applications are indicated if the source of discomfort stems primarily from muscle spasms. The heat will relax the muscles and promote healing. Don’t use heat on injured areas that seem swollen and/or red.
If circulatory issues or nerve damage are present do not use either form of treatment. Even though cold/ice is often recommended for the first 48 hours I suggest you try both, heat and ice and find out which provides greater relief.
- Topical lotions/cremes/rubs are in most cases not much more than a distraction from the pain as they commonly promote surface heat rather than penetrating heat. Those containing Capsaiscin, an extract from red chilli peppers, do effect nerve impulse transmission and can be a helpful addition to analgesic medicine in treating pain. Capsaiscin’s effect is cumulative and therefore requires a prolonged period of usage before its full benefit is noticeable.
- Pain medications (Analgesics) reach from over the counter pills like Tylenol to powerful skin patches prescribed one at a time. In severe chronic back pain cases these types of analgesics are often combined with codein causing possibly addiction. Antiphlogistica include non-steroidal anti inflammatory drugs (NSAID) such as Advil, Aleve or Aspirin. NSAID address pain and inflammation. The last group of medications commonly administered for acute and chronic back pain are muscle relaxants. Muscle spasms appear quite often as a result of nerve root compression. Spasms add to pain, reduce circulation and slow the healing process. Muscle relaxants may cause drowsiness and should preferably be taken at bed time.
- Invasive Treatment Methods
This form of treatment includes most often epidural injections; commonly a powerful mixture of an anti-inflammatory steroid (cortisone) and a local anesthetic used to calm nerve root irritation and reduce swelling.
- Physical Therapy
In case of an acute injury such as a fracture or a herniated disc the RICE injury protocol as is typically the best choice. Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation are indicated to prevent further damage/injury and manage irritation and inflammation. This protocol is most effective during the first 48-72 hours and typically followed up with passive Physical Therapy modalities such as cold/heat (see above), Iontophoresis, trans-cutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), and ultra sound.
Iontophoresis is a modality in which steroids are delivered through the skin using an electrical current. A TENS unit is used to override painful nerve impulses to the brain reducing pain. Ultra sound is a form of deep heating soft tissue often successful in reducing acute pain and enhancing soft tissue healing.
Education and Exercise
A trained Physical Therapist, Physio-Therapist or Kinesiologist can help identify poor body mechanics or postural deviations, which may be contributing factors to your LBP. Together with the therapist you will develop learn to implement strategies that can help to improve those movement and/or postural issues. Learning about proper lifting techniques, a proper work station set-up, and postural awareness can positively influence the outcome of rehabilitation and secondary prevention.
Postural deviations and poor body mechanics are often caused by a combination of a lack of muscular strength and shortened muscles leading to reduced range of motion in the large joints. Poor range of motion especially in the lumbar-pelvic-hip region of the body places undue stress on the spine, as it often requires the spine to compensate for immobility in hips and the sacroiliac joint. The combination of poor mobility and a significant lack of muscular strength leaves the spine vulnerable to injury and increased wear and tear. Physical Therapy will address these issues by leading you in an exercise program that will improve spinal stability and stretching exercises that will increase functional range of motion.
Supine Floor Bridge: Lie on your back with your knees bend at a 90 degree angle and soles of feet firmly placed on the floor. Tighten your stomach and buttocks. Slowly raise your pelvis off the floor as far as you can, maintaining neutral spine throughout the movement. Hold at top for specified time and slowly return to floor. Careful if you have neck issues.
Body Plank Prone: Lie down flat on your stomach. Tuck your toes under and place elbows next to your shoulders. Lift body off the floor supporting plank body position on toes and elbows. Keep stomach and buttocks tight to avoid sway back. Hold for specified time and slowly return to floor.
Clam Shell Exercise: Lie down on your side, placing shoulder over shoulder, hip over hip, knee over knee, and ankle over ankle. Split off top knee keeping feet together and hip over hip (clam shell movement).
Dead Bug Exercise: Lie down on your back, secure spine by contracting abdominals and glutes. Bend both hips and knees at 90 degrees and reach arms straight up towards ceiling. Lower right arm and left leg maintaining neutral spine. Return to starting position and use other diagonal.
Hamstring Stretch: Lie on your back, both knees bent, feet on the floor. Straighten one leg out until you feel stretch on the back side of the thigh. Hold stretch for prescribed time and repeat with other leg.
Kneeling Hip Flexor and Quadricep Stretch: Kneel down on one knee placing other foot in front. Tighten abdominals and glutes and push pelvis straight forward shifting body weight to front foot. You should feel stretch in front of hip and thigh. Hold stretch for prescribed time and repeat with opposite leg.
Please consult your physician before starting any exercise program. Keep in mind that any exercise program should be designed with individual needs in mind and be instructed and supervised by a trained health professional.
- Rest or Exercise?
Over the past four decades the rehabilitation protocol for LBP has clearly shifted from rest, sometimes total bed rest, to a more active path to recovery. Despite this change in approach the actual course of action is still determined by the cause of your back pain. Exercises can be beneficial and recommended, or strictly contraindicated if exercising carries a high risk for further damage. Generally the first course of action is to rest and have a physician assess the cause of your back pain and develop a treatment plan. Acute injuries such as compression fractures of the vertebra or spinous processes as well as a herniated disc require immediate rest to avoid further injury and possible nerve damage. Other problems such as strains and sprains of muscles and ligaments in the low back and along the spine often respond positive to gentle forms of stretching and low impact aerobic activities as both can be helpful in reducing muscle spasm. Regular exercises are of great importance in managing chronic back pain often caused by degenerative changes of the spine. Chronic back pain does require an individualized exercise program to stabilize and mobilize the spine as well as the lumbar-pelvic-hip region in order to reduce pain and improve function and movement. Secondary back pain is often the result of postural and gait deviations caused by osteoarthritis to other large joints such as knees and hips. In order to reduce the back pain an exercise program needs to manage the original cause first and later correct gait and posture.
LBP is responding in most cases positive to exercising and often can be a valid alternative to surgical intervention. The starting point, the intensity, the progression as well as the choice of exercises should be determined by a team of Health Professionals experienced in the rehabilitation and management of LBP.
I hope this article is providing you with some helpful information in dealing with your own low back pain or that of a loved one. As always, your questions and comments are greatly appreciated.