physical therapy for back pain

physical therapy for back pain

Have you wondered if you can find relief for lower back pain through physical therapy? The answer is yes, you can. Physical therapy is a conservative, nonsurgical approach to help you get stronger and healthier, possibly eliminating your back pain altogether. Physical therapy for back pain is a proven, highly effective first-line treatment.

In today’s post, we’ll discuss what types of back pain can be treated, what physical therapists do, and how physical therapy can alleviate back pain.

What is physical therapy?

Physical therapy is a rehabilitative branch of medicine where trained therapists use physical methods to treat pain. Instead of medicine or surgery, physical therapists use their hands to perform treatments like massage, manipulation, and ultrasound. They also work in collaboration with the patient to do stretching and strengthening exercises. The ultimate goal is to relieve your pain and restore your physical abilities.

What can a physical therapist do for back pain?

Your treatment plan is your road to recovery! A physical therapist will tailor an individualized plan that meets your needs and constraints. Your treatment plan will include a range of both passive and active modalities to provide relief from back pain. Passive modalities are when the therapist treats you with massage, heat, ice, electrical stimulation, and manipulation. Active modalities are when you take a more active role and do exercises and stretches to improve range of motion and relieve pain. By following this treatment plan, you’ll find that physical therapy can reduce or totally eliminate your back pain.

Types of back pain effectively treated

There are two types of back pain: chronic and acute. Physical therapy can treat both. Chronic pain comes on slowly and lasts longer than twelve weeks. It is caused by wear and tear, degeneration, and even habitual poor posture or overactivity with weak muscles. Acute pain typically occurs after an injury— it feels sharp and instant. Types of lower back pain effectively treated with physical therapy are:

  • Back injuries

    Back injuries can happen as a result of a fall or a car accident. If your back muscles are already weakened, bending or lifting improperly can also cause a strain or sprain. Lower back pain that happens from injuries is generally sharp, severe pain in the lower back or bottom of the spine immediately after the injury occurs.

  • Herniated discs

    A herniated or bulging disc is when the jelly in the discs between the lower vertebrae spills out through a tear. When this jelly-like material spills out, there is nothing to absorb the shock between the bones. With this condition, the pain will radiate from your lower back down one or both legs. You may also feel a pain similar to an electric shock when you stand or walk.

  • Arthritis of the spine

    Perhaps the most common cause of lower back pain is arthritis. Arthritis of the spine is a result of the degeneration of the joints in the spine. When you age, the cartilage between the spinal joints can deteriorate. As this happens, the tissues around them thin and become inflamed. Since there’s no cushion for the joints, painful friction occurs. If you have this condition, you’ll probably feel stiffness and pain that’s localized around the hips or lower back.

  • Spinal stenosis

    Spinal stenosis occurs when the spaces within your spine narrow. This puts pressure on your nerves in the spine and causes pain. Symptoms of this condition may present over time and include pain in the lower back, numbness or tingling in the leg or foot, and difficulty walking Learn more about spinal stenosis

  • Sacroiliac joint dysfunction

    The sacroiliac joint connects the hip bones and absorbs shock when you bend forward or backward. Repetitive motion or too little movement can cause pain in this joint. Inflammation also plays a role in sacroiliac joint pain. Sacroiliac joint dysfunction causes the pelvis to feel unstable. It can also create lower back pain and numbness or tingling.

  • Degenerative disc disease

    As discs stiffen over time because of age and use, degenerative disc disease can occur. Intervertebral discs are fibrous and provide a cushion to absorb shock in the spine. These discs deteriorate eventually, resulting in pain. Most people have some degree of disc degeneration, but it can cause severe, radiating pain in the lower back as it worsens.

When to seek physical therapy

Did you know that you can get physical therapy for back pain without a referral? You can! A physical therapist can evaluate and, in many cases, treat you for your back pain. If your lower back pain doesn’t subside after two or three weeks, you should seek medical attention. However, if you hurt your back because you fell or were involved in an accident injured yourself, be sure to see a doctor immediately.

What happens at physical therapy?

The first thing the physical therapist will do is an evaluation. Your physical therapist will run diagnostic tests and a physical evaluation to determine the extent of your back pain. They’ll also screen you for more serious health issues that could be causing your pain.

Patients may have physical therapy for back pain two to three times a week for several months. While you’re there, the therapist will work with you on stretching and strengthening exercises.

Here are some of the more common treatments:

  • Rest

    Every injury takes time to heal. Your physical therapist will likely recommend that you stop or modify any activity that exacerbates your back pain. Limiting activity and lying down may take the pressure off of the lower back and reduce immediate pain.

  • Manual therapy

    Manipulation of the spine, pelvis, and legs are a common way to treat lower back pain. Your physical therapist will gently move your body and apply pressure to readjust tight muscles or vertebrae that are misaligned.

  • Exercise

    A range of exercises are recommended and will expand as your pain subsides and you achieve better movement and flexibility. Exercises may include resistance bands, machines, weights, or simply body weight. The goal of exercise is to build muscles that support the lower back and increase range of motion.

  • Heat

    Heat is used in physical therapy to improve the flow of oxygen to muscles. This helps damaged tissue heal. Because heat affects the skin’s sensory receptors, it can also relieve pain by reducing the pain signal’s transmission to the brain.

  • Massage

    Massage may be supplemental to other treatments such as heat and ultrasound. Your therapist will target the muscles that are causing your lower back pain and spend time stretching and massaging them. However, massage is not recommended when inflammation is present because it may cause further irritation of the muscle.

  • Ultrasound

    This treatment utilizes vibration to send heat and energy to the muscles, ligaments, and tendons in the back. Ultrasound therapy is painless and involves a hand-held device that is rubbed over the lower back to deliver heat to the affected area. Ultrasound minimizes pain and encourages healing.

Find relief with Physical Therapy for Back Pain

If you have lower back pain that doesn’t improve with rest, meet with one of our physical therapists, who can get you started on a treatment plan right away.

Physical therapists are experts in the musculoskeletal system and are able to effectively treat lower back pain. They know that strengthening and stretching your lower back and the surrounding muscles are integral to your recovery. And if you should still need surgery, the stronger you are going into it, the faster you are likely to recover.

At Pontchartrain Orthopedic and Sports Medicine, our physical therapy department can help you find relief for back pain.

About the Physical Therapist

New Orleans native Alayna Kirk, DPT graduated from Loyola University New Orleans and received her Doctorate in Physical Therapy from LSU Health Sciences Center.  Alayna believes in a whole body and team based approach to patient care and strives to create dynamic, meaningful, and evidence based treatments. She is a member of the Louisiana Physical Therapy Association (LPTA), American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), and the APTA Orthopedic and Women’s Health sections. In her spare time, she enjoys dessert, concerts, and hanging out with Dudley and Dolores, the cutest dogs in the universe.


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