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Three very common causes of back pain presenting in clinic are 1. muscular, 2. discogenic (from a disc), 3. locked facet joint. We will look at each and the relevant back pain treatment options.
For the low back a common muscle to cause trouble is the piriformis muscle (see diagram). It is involved in hip rotation movements so if it tightens you lose rotation putting pressure on the lower back during activities. When the piriformis muscle tightens it may also squeeze on the sciatic nerve which travels from the lumbar spine down the back of the leg causing pain anywhere along the nerve path(low back, hamstring, calf, sole of foot). Tightened hamstrings may also contribute to low back pain(often resulting from being seated for long periods) making the spine do more work due to resulting poor posture in lifting etc.
The piriformis muscle can usually be worked out and loosened with deep tissue massage. The hamstrings can also be worked if these are contributing. Electro-acupuncture also helps loosen the muscles/trigger points and settle nerve irritation in affected areas.
This is a common cause of back pain in the upper thoracic region(along back of the rib cage)…Often the person feels like somebody is sticking a finger into their back when they inhale deeply. Also with this condition a person may find that they can turn completely in one direction but not the other. In more serious cases pain may shoot down the arm due to nerve entrapment/irritation. A locked facet joint may also occur in the lower back sending nerve pain down the leg. The crack you hear when the back is manipulated is locked facet joints opening, it is not a ”slipped disc” being put back into place. A timely spinal manipulation done correctly, with a little soft tissue work done thereafter can often sort this condition. With the manipulation you get a little crack if the facet joint was locked, as it opens, giving immediate relief.
Discogenic (Disc) related back pain
This is a more tricky one. Probably most common in the lower back (lumbar region). The patient will sometimes present with their spine all twisted off to one side in a sort of ”S” shape. This is usually because the disc bulge or protrusion is touching a nerve. The body compensates for this by trying to get the disc away from the nerve, hence the ”S” shape. Also there will be muscle spasm as the body tries to protect itself. A patient with this condition is usually in a lot of pain and even simple tasks like walking can be excruciatingly painful. Disc pain is less common in the thoracic region but again here it presents with deep unrelenting pain.
There is no such thing as a ”slipped disc”, it is just a misnomer. Discs basically bulge, degenerate(collapse) or herniate(a little fluid filled sack can protrude or leak out of them)(see diagram below). It is when this bulge or protrusion touches a nerve, the trouble starts.
Basically a muscle relaxant (valium) from your doctor along with an anti-inflammatory (NSAIDS) for a couple of days usually helps a lot. Usually two treatment sessions along with the medication to loosen out the muscles will also reduce pain and improve recovery time. A manipulation to open any locked facet joints may help as the condition settles.
When a disc touches a nerve it initiates a series of reactions including muscle spasm and inflammation. The medication is very important in this condition and the combination of the both muscle relaxant and anti-inflammatory seem to complement each other along with treatment. Things such as ”Mckenzie technique” and ”nerve glides” can also help when introduced at the right time during treatment but require too much detail to go into here.
Once the condition settles it is important to 1. Train your body to engage its core. 2. Strengthen your core muscles with pilates type exercises, along with developing your core fitness. 3. Lose weight if you are overweight. 4. Try and improve your flexibity.
Once you get somebody moving, loosened out, give them a proper rehab routine and they are taking the medication, it is more about giving the body time to heal itself than anything else. Basically what you are trying to do with initial treatment is to relax any muscle spasm, reduce inflammation, reduce pressure on the disc with the more long-term goal of strengthening the body in the hope of bringing back in the disc bulge/ protusion enough from the nerve it is touching, so that symptoms subside. If there is little improvement in your condition after a week, an mri may be required to get more accurate information on the injury. In some cases an epidural or surgery may be required.
Please note the above article only lists some common causes of back pain.