If you have low back pain, you are not alone. At any given time, about 25% of people in the United States report having low back pain within the past 3 months. In most cases, low back pain is mild and disappears on its own. For some people, back pain can return or hang on, leading to a decrease in quality of life or even to disability.
If your low back pain is accompanied by the following symptoms, you should visit your local emergency department immediately:
- Loss of bowel or bladder control
- Numbness in the groin or inner thigh
These symptoms might indicate a condition called “cauda equina syndrome,” in which nerves at the end of the spinal cord that control bowel and bladder function are being squeezed.
How Is It Diagnosed?
Your physical therapist will perform a thorough evaluation that includes:
- A review of your health history.
- Questions about your specific symptoms.
- A thorough examination that includes assessing the quality and quantity of your movements, and any movement behaviors that might put you at risk for delayed recovery.
- Tests to identify signs or symptoms that could indicate a serious health problem, such as broken bones or cancer.
- Assessment of how you use your body at work, at home, during sports, and at leisure.
For most cases of low back pain imaging tests, such as x-rays, computed tomography (CT) scans, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are not helpful for recovery. For example, in a recently published article comparing patients who received an MRI first vs physical therapy first for low back pain, the patients who received an MRI first spent on average $4,793 more (with similar outcomes in each group). If your physical therapist suspects that your low back pain might be caused by a serious health condition, the therapist will refer you to other health care professionals for further evaluation.
How Can a Physical Therapist Help?
Your physical therapist can help you improve or restore mobility and reduce low back pain—in many cases, without expensive surgery or the side effects of medications.
If you are having low back pain right now:
- Stay active, and do as much of your normal routine as possible (bed rest for longer than a day can actually slow down your recovery.)
- If your pain lasts more than a few days or gets worse, schedule an appointment to see your physical therapist.
Not all low back pain is the same, so your treatment should be tailored to for your specific symptoms and condition. Once the examination is complete, your physical therapist will evaluate the results, identify the factors that have contributed to your specific back problem, and design an individualized treatment plan for your specific back problem. Treatments may include:
- Manual therapy, including spinal manipulation, to improve the mobility of joints and soft tissues
- Specific strengthening and flexibility exercises
- Education about how you can take better care of your back
- Training for proper lifting, bending, and sitting; for doing chores both at work and in the home; and for proper sleeping positions
- Assistance in creating a safe and effective physical activity program to improve your overall health
- Use of ice or heat treatments or electrical stimulation to help relieve pain
Can this Injury or Condition be Prevented?
As experts in restoring and improving mobility and movement in people’s lives, physical therapists play an important role not only in treating persistent or recurrent low back pain, but also in preventing it and reducing your risk of having it come back.
Physical therapists can teach you how to use the following strategies to prevent back pain:
- Use good body positioning at work, home, or during leisure activities.
- Keep the load close to your body during lifting.
- Ask for help before lifting heavy objects.
- Maintain a regular physical fitness regimen—staying active can help to prevent injuries.
There is evolving evidence suggesting that the best strategy in preventing disability and care-seeking for low back pain is simply understanding what we are learning about the topic of pain. To learn more, read more about Pain.
If you have low back pain, contact the physical therapy experts at the PT Center in the greater Charlotte, NC area today!