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Physical Therapy for Back Pain: Just One of Many Treatment Options


Physical therapy for back pain is often a vital part of proper treatment and recovery, especially when the pain you have is chronic. Different types of physical therapies are recommended depending on the source of the pain. Sometimes, your therapist may want you to try a few different approaches to see what works best. If you're considering physical therapy, here's what you can expect.

The Many Causes of Back Pain

Doctors prescribe different types of therapy for back pain because it can have so many different causes. One common cause of pain is disc degeneration, which happens as you age. A strained muscle, herniated disk, or nerve injury like sciatica can also lead to varying degrees of long-lasting pain, and sometimes an injury you had when you were younger can cause new issues down the line. Other injuries that can cause back pain range from tearing a ligament after lifting something heavy to an accident or fall. Chronic conditions, such as scoliosis, arthritis, or spinal stenosis, may also cause pain. It's always important to see a doctor if you have back pain because certain illnesses can radiate pain into your back, like kidney stones or endometriosis.

How Physical Therapy Alleviates Back Pain

When you suffer from back pain, physical therapy may involve a wide range of exercises to help you recover. One category of exercise involves flexing and bending forward to strengthen your abdominal muscles and take pressure off your back. Another category involves extensions, where you bend backward or lift your legs while lying down. This can help decrease radiating pain and strengthen the muscles that support the spine. Stretches or yoga may also be recommended to extend your range of motion and make your muscles less stiff.

Many therapists will start out with basic, light exercises to see how your back handles them. You may be told to lie on your back and move your ankles up and down, slowly bend and straighten your knees, or tighten and relax your abdominal muscles. Or you may be given light exercises to do while standing, such as bending your knees up and down or raising and lowering your heels. Over time, you may progress to more advanced exercises, like leg raises using a yoga ball or full crunches.

You may also be given light aerobic exercises to get your heart rate up, such as jogging, walking, cycling, or swimming. If you have overall general pain along with lower back pain, you'll likely be given low-intensity exercises that focus on endurance. If your pain is chronic but not generalized, your therapist may try moderate or even high-intensity workouts.

Other Methods of Back Pain Management

Physical therapy can include more than exercise, so don't be surprised if your therapist starts you out with a treatment that doesn't focus heavily on stretches and building muscle. Your therapist may try alternating hot and cold applications on your back, acupuncture, spinal manipulation, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) treatment, or massage. Even mindfulness meditation and progressive relaxation have been shown to help with chronic lower back pain. Your therapist may also try low-level laser therapy or electromyography biofeedback, which uses surface electrodes to help reduce spastic muscles. The type of therapy you receive may depend on whether you have a traditional physical therapist or see someone who takes a more holistic approach that involves alternative medicine.

Physical therapy for back pain doesn't provide overnight, immediate relief. You'll likely need to commit to long-term appointments and really put in the time before you start seeing a significant improvement. And sometimes, your pain might temporarily feel a little worse before it improves. So don't give up just because you don't see improvement right away, but do talk to your doctor about any discomfort you experience or questions you may have.

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