A Physical Therapist’s Perspective on Chronic Back Pain

chronic back pain

Out of all the conditions we diagnose and treat at our physical therapy clinic, chronic low back pain is one of the most common. We spend a lot of time educating our patients and their loved ones about this broad health condition—including why it happens and how to avoid it.

Because here’s the thing a lot of people may not realize:

Chronic back pain is not necessarily a “normal” part of aging, and it is possible to live with less pain and greater function even if you’ve been dealing with a troublesome back for years.

We invite you to contact our physical therapy clinic today to schedule an initial consultation and keep reading to learn five things our physical therapist team has learned over the years about chronic back pain.

1. Most People Will Have Back Pain at Least Once

Studies tell us the vast majority of people (as many as 8 out of 10) will experience at least one episode of back pain at some point in their lifetime. Not everyone will have long-lasting pain, and in many cases a person’s symptoms will go away within a few weeks without the need for any special medical care.

But even if a person’s back pain resolves on its own, there’s always the possibility that hidden contributing factors, such as inflexibility or poor body mechanics, still remain. This can increase the likelihood of experiencing recurring back pain and injury. Research even suggests that a history of back pain is itself considered a risk factor for future problems.

It’s a big reason why consulting with a physical therapist as soon as possible when you have back pain can be so helpful for your long-term spinal health. A physical therapist can help you uncover and address hidden issues that are putting you at risk for conditions like muscle strains, joint misalignments, degenerative disc disease, disc herniation, and nerve impingement.

2. Most Risk Factors for Chronic Back Pain Are Preventable

The majority of back pain risk factors are preventable, according to research. It’s great news for you, because it means reducing your risk of chronic pain and alleviating your symptoms is largely within your control (and maybe with a bit of help from a physical therapist).

Common preventable risk factors for chronic back pain include:

  • Sedentary behavior
  • Excessive weight
  • Smoking
  • Poor posture
  • Physically demanding jobs, including ones that require frequent sitting, bending, twisting, heavy lifting, or exposure to vibration

Even treatable psychological factors like stress, anxiety, and depression chronic increase the risk of chronic back pain. That’s one reason our physical therapy team takes a holistic approach to our treatment plans and are always prepared to refer our patients to mental health professionals as appropriate.

3. In Most Cases, Exercise Makes Chronic Back Pain Better—Not Worse

We understand that moving around when you have chronic back pain can be a huge struggle. But with very few exceptions, participating in some form of daily movement is actually an important part of your pain control plan.

Exercise keeps your muscles and tissues strong, boosts circulation, reduces chronic inflammation, enhances mood, relieves stress, and helps you maintain a healthy body weight—all of which can ease and prevent back pain. A variety of activities are proven effective, including aerobic exercises like walking and cycling, and specific exercises to improve tissue healing, strength, flexibility, and endurance.

Consider that what works for some people may not work ideally for you. By honoring your specific needs and goals, a physical therapist can help you develop a safe, effective, and sustainble exercise program that you can enjoy as a part of your daily life.

4. Surgery and Long-Term Medications Are Not Always Indicated

A lot of people assume that conditions like herniated discs can only be treated with surgery. But while certain situations do warrant surgical intervention, invasive procedures like spinal fusions are usually not considered the first best option for chronic back pain conditions.

In fact, research indicates only about half of first-time back surgeries successfully alleviate a person’s symptoms and improve their function. Repeat back surgeries fare even worse, with fewer than 30 percent of people reporting successful outcomes after a second spine operation. This problem is so well-documented in the literature that it’s earned its own ominous nickname: failed back surgery syndrome (FBSS).

Don’t forget, surgery also comes with its own challenges, like prolonged recovery time and the risk of post-operative complications like infections and bleeding.

Meanwhile, physical therapy is recognized by the medical and scientific communities as one of the first lines of treatment for chronic back pain. Research even suggests that working with a physical therapist can help a person with chronic back pain reduce their dependency on opioid medications. Not only does this make physical therapy the clear cost-effective choice, but it also shows why physical therapy is often the safer option.

5. Chronic Back Pain Can Get Better Even If You Don’t Know What’s Causing It

Remember how we said that most people will experience back pain at least once in their lives? Incredibly, research suggests many of these cases are “idiopathic,” meaning that doctors don’t know exactly what’s causing a person’s symptoms.

Even imaging studies aren’t always useful for helping doctors determine the cause of a patient’s back pain. For example, an MRI may reveal a herniated disc in the spine of a person who has no signs or symptoms whatsoever. Meanwhile, a person with debilitating back pain may have a perfectly “normal” spine as seen on an MRI or X-ray.

A physical therapist receives extensive training in evaluating, diagnosing, and treating spinal conditions. But even if it’s not possible to pinpoint the exact underlying cause of chronic back pain, physical therapy can still help. By designing a plan of care based on addressing the symptoms and known contributing factors—including poor posture, decreased hip and shoulder range of motion, and weak core muscles—a physical therapist can you get lasting relief.

Are You Ready to Make Chronic Back Pain a Thing of the Past?

Call our physical therapy clinic if you need help reclaiming your healthy active life and are ready to start living with less pain.

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