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Back Pain and Sciatica

* Please note that most treatment modalities listed below are based on conventional medicine. does not advocate the use of any pharmaceutical drug treatments. Long-term drug therapy is very detrimental to human health. All drug information is for your reference only and readers are strongly encouraged to research healthier alternatives to any drug therapies listed.


The Spine

Vertebrae. The spine is a column of small bones, or vertebrae, that support the entire upper body. The column is grouped into three sections of vertebrae:
  • The cervical (C) vertebrae are the seven spinal bones that support the neck.

  • The thoracic (T) vertebrae are the twelve spinal bones that connect to the rib cage.

  • The lumbar (L) vertebrae are the five lowest and largest bones of the spinal column. Most of the body's weight and stress falls on the lumbar vertebrae.

  • Below the lumbar region is the sacrum, a shield-shaped bony structure that connects with the pelvis at the sacroiliac joints.

  • At the end of the sacrum are two to four tiny, partially fused vertebrae known as the coccyx or "tail bone."
Each vertebra can be designated by using a letter and number; the letter reflects the region (C=cervical, T=thoracic, and L=lumbar) and the number signifies its location within that region. For example, C4 is the fourth bone down in the cervical region and T8 is the eighth thoracic vertebrae.

The Discs. Vertebrae in the spinal column are separated from each other by small cushions of cartilage known as intervertebral discs . Inside each disc is a jelly-like substance called the nucleus pulposus , which is surrounded by a tough, fibrous shell called the annulus. The disc is 80% water. This structure makes the disk both elastic and strong. The discs have no blood supply of their own, however, but rely on nearby blood vessels to keep them nourished.

Processes. Each vertebra in the spine has a number of bony projections, known as processes. The spinal and transverse processes attach to the muscles in the back and act like little levers, allowing the spine to twist or bend. The particular processes form the joints between the vertebrae themselves, meeting together and interlocking at the facet joints .

Spinal Canal. Each vertebra and its processes surround and protect an arch-shaped central opening. These arches, aligned to run down the spine, form the spinal canal, which encloses the spinal cord.

Spinal Cord. The spinal cord is the central trunk of nerves that connects the brain with the rest of the body. Each nerve root passes from the spinal column to other parts of the body through small openings bounded on one side by the disc and the other by the facets. When the spinal cord reaches the lumbar region, it splits into four bundled strands of nerve roots called the cauda equina (meaning horsetail in Latin).

The Sciatic Nerve. The sciatic nerve is the one most likely to be affected in low back pain and has an extensive pathway:
  • It first branches from the nerve roots that descend off the lowest part of the spinal cord (in the lumbar and sacral areas). Each of the two branches of the sciatic nerve is about as wide as a thumb.

  • Each threads through the pelvis and deep into either side of the buttocks.
Each then passes down the hip and along the back of the thigh to the foot.

Low Back Pain

Low back pain is usually defined as either acute or chronic.
  • Acute low back pain lasts less than a month and is not caused by serious medical conditions. Most cases clear up in a few days without medical attention, although recurrence after a first attack is common.

  • Chronic low back pain persists beyond six months. It constitutes only 1% to 5% of all low back pain cases.
The source of low back pain can be from abnormalities in one or more of the many structures in the spine:
  • Injuries and small fractures can occur.

  • Muscle spasms can cause pain.

  • Pressure on a weakened disc may cause it to rupture so the nucleus pulposus protrudes out from the spinal column, a condition known as a herniated disc .

  • The facets can become misaligned or deteriorate.

  • The spinal canal itself can become narrowed, a disorder called spinal stenosis .

  • Scar tissue in the lower spine can trap nerves.


At some time, up to 40% of people experience pain, known as sciatica, which occurs when the sciatic nerve is trapped or inflamed.

Causes of Sciatica. A herniated disc pressing on the sciatic nerve is the most common cause of this problem, although spinal stenosis or other vertebral abnormalities that press on the sciatic nerve can also cause pain. [ See What Causes the Pain in Low Back Pain or Sciatica?.]

Symptoms of Sciatica. Symptoms of sciatica involve the following:
  • The sensation of sciatica is usually experienced along the course of the sciatic nerve, which travels from the lower back, through the buttock, into the calf, and sometimes even the foot.

  • The pain can vary widely, from a mild tingling to pain, to a dull ache, to a burning sensation, to pain severe enough to cause immobility.

  • It most often occurs on one side. Some people experience sharp pain in one part of the leg or hip and numbness in other parts. The affected leg may feel weak.

  • The pain often starts slowly and typically worsens at night.

  • The pain increases after prolonged standing or sitting.

  • It is often aggravated by sneezing, coughing, or laughing.

  • Patients may also experience it after bending backwards or walking more than 50 to 100 yards, particularly if it is caused by spinal stenosis.

  • The pain usually resolves within six weeks with mild activity.


In about 85% of back pain cases, the origin of the pain is unknown and even imaging studies usually fail to determine the cause.

Herniated Disc and Other Disc Abnormalities

Disc herniation and disc degeneration due to aging are the most common causes of low back pain. Other problems can also cause this pain, however.

Lumbar Degenerative Disc Disease. Over the years, the disc can degenerate and produce low-grade inflammation and irritation. This age-related condition is the major source of chronic low back pain.

Herniated Disc. A herniated disc, sometimes, but incorrectly, called a slipped disc, is widely held to be the most common cause of severe back pain and sciatica. A disc in the lumbar area becomes herniated when it ruptures or thins out and degenerates to the point that the gelatin within the disc protrudes outward.

It is commonly believed that that low back pain most often occurs if this material extrudes (that is, it balloons into the area outside the vertebrae or breaks off from the disc) far enough out to press against the nerve root, most often the sciatic nerve. Recently, however, researchers are finding that the presence of such a pinched nerve does not necessarily relate to the severity of the pain. In fact, as people age, disc bulging and protrusion are very common occurrences, and in most cases do not cause any back pain. And, sciatica pain is sometimes present when there is no bulging or extruding of the discs. Experts increasingly believe, then, that low back pain associated with disc abnormalities may result from factors other then compressed nerves.

The Annular Ring. Increasingly, research is focusing on tears in the annular ring, which is the fibrous band that surrounds and protects the disc. The annular ring contains a dense nerve network and high levels of peptides that heighten perception of pain:
  • Tears in the annular ring are a frequent finding in patients with degenerative disk disease.

  • Some cases of chronic low back pain may be caused by inward growth of nerve fibers into the annular ring, which trigger pain within the intervertebral.

Muscle and Ligament Injuries

Other than age-related degenerative disk disorders injuries in the muscles and ligaments supporting the back are the major causes of low back pain.

Spinal Stenosis

Spinal stenosis is the narrowing of the spinal canal. This typically develops as a person ages and the discs become drier and start to shrink. At some point in this process, any disruption, such as a minor injury that results in disc inflammation, can cause impingement on the nerve root and trigger pain. Pain from spinal stenosis can occur in both legs or can cause sciatic pain. Spinal stenosis occurs mostly in the elderly with degenerative osteoarthritis, but it can sometimes be caused by other problems, including infection and birth defects.

Miscellaneous Abnormalities

A number of conditions that affect the joints, vertebrae, or nerve roots can cause back pain:
  • Spondylolisthesis is a condition in which one vertebra has slipped forward over the other. This is also a cause of sciatica.

  • The facet joints can wear down. In such cases, pain occurs on arching the back or when walking.

  • In some cases a segment (consisting of two vertebra and their common joint and disc) becomes unstable when its parts wear down.

  • Some patients may have scar tissue that traps the nerve roots in the lower spine and causes sciatica.

Piriformis Syndrome

Some experts believe that one cause of sciatica pain is the entrapment of the sciatic nerve deep in the buttock by the piriformis muscle. It usually develops after an injury. Others believe there is no real evidence that this condition, known as piriformis syndrome, causes any sciatic pain.


In most known cases, pain begins with an injury, after lifting a heavy object, or after making an abrupt movement. A number of conditions may make people more or less susceptible to low back pain from such events. In 85% of back pain cases, the causes are unknown.

Aging Process

Intervertebral discs begin deteriorating and growing thinner by age 30. One-third of adults over 20 show evidence of herniated discs (although only 3% of these discs cause symptoms). As people continue to age and the discs lose moisture and shrink, the risk for spinal stenosis increases. The incidence of low back pain and sciatica increases in women at the time of menopause as they lose bone density. In the older adults, osteoporosis and osteoarthritis are also common. However, the risk for low back pain does not mount steadily with ever-increasing age, which suggests that at a certain point, the conditions causing low back pain plateau.

Genetic Factors

Inherited Spinal Structure Abnormalities. Many people have a genetic susceptibility to low back pain, usually from inheriting spinal structural abnormalities.

Abnormalities in Disk Strength. Studies are finding that specific mutations of the COL9A gene may play a role in about 10% of sciatica cases. The gene is normally involved in producing collagen, the protein building block in all structural tissue in the body. When defective, it may cause the disk to be less able to resist compressive forces. One 2001 study found the defective gene was present in twice as many patients with disk problems as in patients without back pain.

Central Nervous System Abnormalities

After episodes of back pain, some people may experience changes in brain function that lead them to experience chronic back pain. Such changes include an exaggerated response in nerve cells or other factors that cause a persistent perception of pain even without an actual physical injury.


Osteoarthritis occurs in joints where cartilage is damaged and then destroyed. In reaction to this destruction, the bones associated with the joints develop abnormalities. (Rheumatoid arthritis, which is an arthritic condition caused by inflammation in the joints, can damage joints throughout the body, but rarely affects the lower back.) When osteoarthritis affects the spine, it may damage the cartilage in the discs, the moving joints of the spine, or both. The nerves may become pinched, causing pain and in advanced cases, numbness and muscle weakness. The patient may also experience muscle spasms and diminished mobility.

Psychologic and Social Factors

Psychological factors are known to play a strong influential role in three phases of low back pain:
  • Onset of pain. Although disc abnormalities are certainly a cause of low back pain, many people with disc rupture or tears do not experience back pain. And some people without disc abnormalities complain of back pain. Research now indicates that in many people, preexisting depression and the inability to cope may be more likely to predict the onset of pain than physical abnormalities.

  • The perception of pain. Social and psychologic factors play a role in how severely someone experiences pain. People who are depressed are more likely to have vague physical symptoms, including low back pain. For example, in one study of truck drivers and bus drivers, nearly all the truck drivers liked their work and their bosses while bus drivers reported much lower job satisfaction. Half the truck drivers reported low back pain but only 24% lost time at work. Bus drivers with back pain had a significantly higher absentee rate in spite of less stress on their backs. Similarly, another study found that pilots (who generally reported "loving" their jobs) reported far fewer back problems than their flight crews. And yet another study reported that low rank, low social support, and high stress in soldiers was associated with a higher risk for disabling back pain.

  • Chronic pain. The way a patient perceives and copes with pain at the beginning of an acute attack may actually condition the patient to either recover or develop a chronic condition. Those who over-respond to pain tend to feel out of control and become discouraged, increasing their risk for long-term problems. One study, in fact, reported that in patients with existing back problems, the fear of pain was actually more disabling than the pain itself.
It should be strongly noted that the presence of psychological factors in no way diminishes the reality of the pain and its disabling effects. Recognizing it as a strong player in many cases of low back pain, however, can help determine the full range of treatment options.


Pregnant women are prone to back pain due to a shifting of abdominal organs, the forward redistribution of body weight, and the loosening of ligaments in the pelvic area as the body prepares for delivery. Tall people are at higher risk than short people.


Osteoporosis is a disease of the skeleton in which the amount of calcium present in the bones slowly decreases to the point where the bones become fragile and prone to fracture. It usually does not cause pain unless the vertebrae collapse suddenly, when pain is often severe. Studies indicate, however, that the incidence of low back pain and sciatica increase around the time of menopause, and very tiny fractures in the vertebrae caused by osteoporosis may be an undetected cause of back pain in many elderly women.


Infections are a common cause of back pain. Osteomyelitis is infection in the spine, a rare cause of back pain. Other infections that cause back pain include Lyme disease, septic arthritis, bacterial endocarditis, Reiter's syndrome, mycobacterial and fungal arthritis, and viral arthritis. Chronic uterine or pelvic infections can cause low back pain in women.


Atherosclerosis (commonly called hardening of the arteries) reduces blood supply in the arteries. Although mainly known as a cause of heart disease, atherosclerosis can also reduce the supply of blood to the back and cause chronic low back pain. When it blocks arteries in the legs (a condition called intermittent claudication) it may resemble sciatica.

Ankylosing Spondylitis

Ankylosing spondylitis is a chronic inflammation of the spine that may gradually result in a fusion of the spine. Symptoms include a slow development of back discomfort, with pain lasting for more than three months. The back is usually stiff in the morning; pain improves with exercise. In severe cases, the patient must continually stoop over. It can be quite mild, however, and it rarely affects a person's ability to work. It occurs mostly in young Caucasians in their mid-twenties. The disease is more common in men, but about 30% of the cases are in women. Researchers believe that in most cases it is hereditary. About 20% of people with inflammatory bowel disease and about 20% of people with psoriasis develop a form of ankylosing spondylitis.

Muscular Abnormalities

Some research is suggesting that some people have motor control abnormalities in the deep muscles near the spine. Such lack of control causes instability in the spine that can lead to pain.

Other Medical Conditions

Sometimes back pain can be caused by problems in other organs, usually near the spine, which is then called referred pain. These conditions can include ulcers, kidney disease (including kidney stones), ovarian cysts, and pancreatitis. Inflammatory bowel disease and rheumatoid arthritis can produce inflammation in the spine ( sacroiliitis). Back pain can also be due to abscesses, blood clots, and cancer. Fibromyalgia (also called fibrositis or fibromyositis) is a syndrome that causes chronic, sometimes debilitating muscle pain and fatigue. In older people, low back pain may be a sign of Paget's disease or Parkinson's. [For more information see the Report Fibromyalgia.]


Medications may trigger back pain. For example, anticoagulants can cause bleeding or an internal bruise. Long-term steroid use can cause infection or compression fractures.

Conditions that Cause Back Pain in Children

Persistent low back pain in children is more likely to have a serious cause that requires treatment than back pain in adults. According to one small study, one third of children being treated at a hospital for back pain were found to have serious underlying problems. Among the conditions that cause back pain in children are the following:
  • Spondylolytis are stress fractures in the spine. They are a common cause of back pain in young athletes. (Sometimes a fracture may not show up for a week or two after an injury.)

  • Hyperlordosis is an inborn exaggerated inward curve in the lumbar area. (Scoliosis, an abnormal curvature of the spine in children, does not usually cause back pain.)

  • Injuries.

  • Benign tumors (eg, osteoblastoma or neurofibroma).

  • Cancers, including leukemia.

  • Juvenile chronic arthropathy. This is an inherited form of arthritis that can cause pain in the sacrum and hip joints of children and young people. It used to be grouped under juvenile rheumatoid arthritis but is now defined as a separate problem.


Between 60% and 90% of the population experience back pain at one time or another during their lifetimes. Every year, nearly 15% of American adults visit their doctors because of low back pain episodes. Men and women are equally at risk. Low back pain is second only to upper respiratory infections (such as colds and flus) as the reason for seeing a doctor. In its costs to the country, it is second only to cancer and heart disease.

High-Risk Occupations

In one study, 16 out of 100 warehouse workers reported back injuries in one year, and in two major food service organizations 30% of all injuries involved the back. A major study of work-related injuries reported that, in 1994, there were nearly 330,000 cases of back injury due to overexertion in handling objects.

Jobs that involve lifting and forceful movements, bending and twisting into awkward positions, and whole-body vibration (usually caused by long-distance truck driving) place workers at particular risk for low back pain. The longer a person is on such jobs, the higher the risk. Some workers wear back support belts, but evidence strongly suggests that they are useful only for people who are currently suffering from low back pain. They offer little added support for the back and do not prevent back injuries. In fact, in one study workers who wore the belt for prevention reported more back pain than the workers who didn't wear them.

A number of companies are developing programs to protect against back injuries. Although studies are mixed on the effects of company interventions, one analysis suggested that they do have a positive effect. Employers and workers, however, should make every effort to create a safe working environment. Office workers should have chairs, desks, and equipment that support the back or help maintain good posture.

Improper or Intense Exercise

On the other side of the coin, improper or excessive exercise is also an important risk factor for back pain.
  • The effect of high-impact exercise on the back is not entirely clear. Some research suggests that over time, it may increase the risk for degenerative disc disease. A survey of people who played tennis, however, found no increased risk for low back pain or sciatica.

  • Between 30% and 70% of cyclists experience low back pain. (One 1999 study reported that 70% of cyclists reported improvement simply by adjusting the angle of the bicycle seat.)

  • Improper exercise instruction and inattention to mechanics can be sources of sudden trouble. As examples, a single jerky golf swing or incorrect use of exercise equipment (especially free weights, nautilus, and rowing machines) can cause serious back injuries.

Sedentary Lifestyle

People who do not exercise regularly face an increased risk for low back pain, especially during times when they suddenly embark on stressful unaccustomed activity, such as shoveling, digging, or moving heavy items. Although no definitive studies have been done to prove the relationship between lack of exercise and low back pain, sedentary living is probably a primary nonmedical culprit contributing to this condition. Lack of exercise leads to the following conditions that may threaten the back:
  • Muscle inflexibility (can restrict the back's ability to move, rotate, and bend).

  • Weak stomach muscles (can increase the strain on the back and can cause an abnormal tilt of the pelvis).

  • Weak back muscles (may increase the load on the spine and the risk for disc compression).

  • Obesity, associated with sedentary lifestyle (may put more weight on the spine and increase pressure on the vertebrae and discs). Studies report only a weak association between obesity and low back pain, however.

Risk Factors for Back Pain in Children and Adolescents

The likelihood of experiencing back pain increases as children age, and pain is more common among girls than boys, according to a 1999 study. A common cause of temporary back pain is carrying backpacks that are too heavy for children (more than 20% of their body weight, or even less for very young children).

Other Risk Factors

Smokers are at higher risk for back problems, perhaps because smoking decreases blood circulation, but the association may also be due to an unhealthy lifestyle in general.


Outlook for Uncomplicated Low Back Pain

Studies now suggest that more patients have chronic back pain than previously believed. About a third of patients with uncomplicated low back pain are significantly improved after a week and two thirds have recovered by seven weeks. Within six months, however, some research suggests that 40% of patients experience another bout of back pain. In another survey, over a one-year period following treatment only 21% of patients had no recurring back pain. Over four years, less than half were symptom-free. Some physicians are approaching the problem as they would any chronic illness, one that is not necessarily curable and that needs a consistent on-going approach.

Specific conditions can determine the rate of improvement:
  • In the majority of patients with herniated disks, the condition improves (although the actual physical improvement may be slower than the reduction in pain.) Researchers attempted to identify factors most likely to predict an elevated risk for recurrent pain and found that only depression was a significant factor in the majority of those who had not recovered.

  • Spinal stenosis stabilizes in about 70% of cases and worsens in 15%. Only about 15% of these patients improve.

Effects on Work

Studies have found that when people stay home because of back injury, only 65% are back within a week and nearly 14% are still absent at one month. And, if someone is on disability for more than six months, the person has only a 50% chance of returning to work.

Low back pain accounts for significant losses in work days and dollars. In 1990, it cost the US $23 billion in direct medical costs and possibly as much as $85 billion in total costs (such as lost productivity. Chronic back pain has become one of the most expensive causes of disability among workers under the age of 45. One study found that although severe back pain comprised only 10% of workers compensation cases it accounted for 86% of compensation costs.

Cauda Equina Syndrome

Cauda equina syndrome is the impingement of the cauda equina (the four strands of nerves leading through the lowest part of the spine) and can have severe complications in the bowel or bladder. It is an emergency condition. It is usually caused by massive extrusion of the disc material. Cauda equina syndrome can cause permanent incontinence if not promptly treated with surgery. Symptoms of the syndrome include the following:
  • Dull back pain.

  • Weakness or numbness in buttocks, genital area, or thigh.

  • An inability to control urination or defecation. Pain accompanied by fever can indicate an infection.

Warning Signs for Serious Underlying Problems

Certain warning signs should alert a patient to see a physician immediately for low back pain. Any very severe back pain warrants attention, particularly if any of the following conditions are present:
  • Being over 50.

  • Recent injury.

  • Severe pain.

  • Pain awakens the person at night.

  • Pain accompanied by fever (possible infection).

  • Pain increased by lying down.

  • Pain unrelated to movement.

  • Pain lasts for a month, and is accompanied by unexplained fever or weight loss. (Possible indication of a tumor particularly in people with a history of cancer).

  • History or chronic use of corticosteroids.

  • Intravenous drug use.

  • History of urinary tract infection.

  • In children, any severe neck or back pain or pain that persists for more than three days.


Because nearly all cases of low back pain clear up in a short time and are not due to serious problems, a medical history and a brief physical examination are almost always sufficient. If the physician suspects a serious underlying cause, the approach to determining the origin of back pain involves answering three questions:
  • Is some general medical disorder present that could be causing the pain?

  • Are there social or emotional factors that might be intensifying the pain?

  • Are the nerves in the spine involved in the pain (such as in sciatica)?
Such questions can usually be answered with a medical history and physical examination.

Medical History

A medical and family history should include heart problems, cancer, arthritis, and any other serious conditions. The patient should report the following:
  • Previous episodes of back pain.

  • Any history of injuries or accidents involving the neck, back, or hips.

  • Any indications of a serious underlying disease (eg, history of cancer, unexplained weight loss, chronic infection).

  • The frequency, duration, and the nature of the pain (eg, whether it is dull, piercing, throbbing, or burning).

  • The timing of back pain (whether it occurs at night or during the day).

  • Events surrounding the onset and whether the pain was triggered by an event, such as lifting a heavy object. (Often, the patient cannot describe an event that produced the pain.)

  • Any condition that worsens the pain (for example, coughing, exercise, straining during bowel movements, walking).

  • Any situation that relieves the pain (lying down, exercise).

  • Problems with urination or defecation (symptom of cauda equina syndrome).

  • Other relevant symptoms (eg, morning stiffness, weakness or numbness in the legs).

Physical Examination

The main objectives of a physical examination are to attempt to locate the specific location of the pain source and to determine limits of movement:
  • Patients are asked to sit, stand, and walk in different ways (flat-footed, on the toes, and on their heels).

  • In some cases they are asked to walk on a treadmill to test for weakness in toe or heel walking (which may indicate stenosis).

  • Patients will be requested to bend forward, backward, and sideways and to twist.

  • Patients will be asked to lift their leg straight up while lying down. The physician will also move the patient's legs in different positions and bend and straighten the knees. (Pain caused by sciatica can be intensified by lifting the affected leg straight in the air. It is usually sharp, localized, and accompanied by numbness or tingling. Pain caused by inflammation is duller and more generalized and not affected by lifting a straight leg.)

  • The physician may measure the circumference of the calves and thighs to look for muscle deterioration.

  • To test nerve function and reflexes, physicians will tap the knees and ankles with a rubber hammer. The physician may also touch parts of the body lightly with a pin, cotton swab, or feather to test for numbness and nerve sensitivity.

Imaging Techniques

Imaging techniques such as x-rays or scans are rarely useful except under certain circumstances that may include the following:
  • Pain that lasts more than a month.

  • Very severe pain, numbness.

  • Muscle weakness.

  • A previous accident or injury that might have affected the back.

  • A history of cancer or other indications of an underlying disease, such as fever or unexplained weight loss.

  • In older patients (over 65 years of age).
If these conditions exist, usually an x-ray is used first. If results are inconclusive, either computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may be performed. (Ultrasound is not useful.)

  • Although many patients with acute and uncomplicated low back pain believe that plain x-rays of the spinal column are important in a diagnosis, they are not very helpful in most patients except for reducing anxiety. Experts recommend waiting six to eight weeks. If pain persists, then x-rays are usually warranted. In such cases, they may reveal signs of injury, infection, tumors, stenosis, or changes in the vertebrae that may be causing inflammation or compression on the nerve. In nearly all cases of early back pain, however, plain x-rays offer no benefit for diagnosis or determining treatment unless a specific underlying cause is suspected.

  • A discography is an x-ray of the disc. It requires injections into discs suspected of being the source of pain and discs nearby. It can be painful and is generally only used for patients who are undergoing back surgery to identify the location of the injured disc.

  • A myelogram is an x-ray of the spine that requires a spinal injection and the need to lie still for several hours to avoid a very painful headache. It has value only for select patients with pain on moving and standing. It has largely been replaced by CT and MRI scans.
CT and MRI Scans. Computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are not painful and can identify disc abnormalities. MRIs are more accurate than CTs and provide very well-defined images of soft tissue and bone. MRIs are able to detect annular tears or disc fragments and can detect non-spinal causes of back pain, including infection and cancer. They are expensive, however, and many experts believe they are overused and, in most cases of back pain, are not very useful. Reasons are as follows:
  • Studies have reported that MRIs miss between 6% and 23% of damaged discs that were revealed during surgery.

  • More importantly, evidence now strongly suggests that the degree of disc abnormalities revealed by MRIs have very little to do with the severity of the pain or the need for surgery. Studies, in fact, indicate that at least 40% of all adults have bulging or protruding vertebrae discs, and most have no back pain. Discs abnormalities in people who have back pain, then, may simply be a coincidence rather than an indication for treatment. Many experts now believe that relying on images of disc abnormalities to determine treatment has resulted in many unnecessary surgeries.
Advanced imaging techniques should be used only when underlying infection, cancer, or nerve involvement are suspected. Spinal abnormalities identified by MRIs often do not predict long-term problems. Three-dimensional CT scans and MRI refinements may soon make diagnosis more accurate.

Bone Scans and SPECT Imaging. In rare cases, bone scintigraphy and single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) may be used, such as when bone abnormalities are suspected from conditions that include spinal fracture, cancer that has spread to the bone, or osteoarthritis.

Other Tests

Blood and urine samples may be used to test for infections, arthritis, or other conditions. Injecting a drug that blocks pain into the nerves in the back helps locate the level in the spine where problems occur. A procedure called a facet block is also useful in locating areas of specific damage. Provocative discometry is a test that uses an injection of saline solution into the suspected disc to reproduce the pain, which is then followed by injection of an anesthetic to dull the pain.


General Approach for Uncomplicated Acute Low Back Pain or Sciatica

For treating short-term acute low back pain, the best results derive from the least aggressive treatments. The general approach is the following:
  • Patients with no indication of any serious underlying cause should stay as active as possible within the limits of the back pain. (Bed rest is not recommended.) Studies suggest that a third of patients with uncomplicated low back pain are significantly improved after a week with no other treatment than normal activity and two thirds have recovered by seven weeks.

  • Physical therapy or spinal manipulations may be helpful if pain continues for more than two weeks.

  • The patients should seek a specialist if pain continues for more than a month (or less than this if there is indications for an underlying disorder, nerve damage, or injury).
Back pain attributed to medical conditions, such as arthritis, osteoporosis, or pregnancy, either resolves when the condition does or is treated as part of the overall therapeutic plan.

Immediate Treatment of Acute Low Back Pain of Unknown Cause

Specific Tips for Relieving Pain. At the onset of acute low back pain when the cause is unknown the following tips may be helpful:
  • Although bed rest is no longer recommended, the patient should stop normal physical activities for the first couple of days in order to calm symptoms.

  • Over-the-counter pain relievers often provide significant benefits. Muscle relaxants may be helpful in some patients. Once started, medications should be taken on a regular schedule in order to maintain consistent effectiveness.

  • Many people find that alternating ice packs and heating pads is helpful in relieving the pain. Some people recommend changing from hot to cold every three minutes and repeating this sequence three times. (Some experts believe ice packs should be applied first.) This regimen should be performed two or three times during the day. (Heat or cold treatments do not have much effect on sciatica.)

  • Supportive back belts, braces, or corsets may help some people temporarily, but they can reduce muscle tone over time and should be used only briefly.

  • Healthy sleep plays a vital role in recovery. It is often difficult to get a good night's sleep when suffering from back pain, particularly because the pain can intensify at night. Take a warm bath before bedtime, and practice relaxation techniques. It may be necessary to take medication to help manage nighttime pain or treat sleeplessness. To help promote sleep, avoid caffeine in the afternoon and evening. Lying curled up in a fetal position with a pillow between the knees or lying on the back with a pillow under the knees may help. Pregnant women with back pain may find some relief by placing a specially shaped pillow (eg, Ozzlo Pillow) under the abdomen while sleeping.

  • Although not intensively studied, patients report that massage therapy is helpful in some cases. It is is proving to be very helpful for back pain in the acute and chronic phases.

  • Spinal manipulation may be helpful but some experts recommend delaying this treatment until pain has persisted for three weeks, if possible, since in many patients the back pain will have resolved on its own by then.
Treatments that Provide no Benefits

Patients should be aware of and avoid certain approaches that are not helpful and, in some cases may be harmful for acute low back pain:
  • Bed rest. Bed rest for low back pain, including most cases of sciatica, is no more effective and may even be worse than simply continuing normal activities to the degree possible. Long-term bed rest results in loss of muscle tone and bone strength, increases susceptibility to blood clots, and causes depression and lethargy.

  • Exercise in the acute phases of low back pain. Intense exercise and physical activity should be avoided during acute back pain, particularly heavy lifting and trunk twisting. (Specific exercises can be important during recovery, however, as well as for patients with chronic low back pain.)

  • Acupuncture. Acupuncture has not proven to have any value for acute low back pain in most patients, but may provide some help for patients with chronic low back pain.

  • Magnet therapy. Permanent bipolar magnets have gained some popularity as a non-invasive method of relieving pain. To date no studies support such claims and one 2000 study reported no effect in alleviating low back pain. It should be noted that magnets can deactivate heart devices and must be kept at least six inches away from pacemakers or implantable cardioverter defibrillators.

Resuming Normal Activity

Experts now recommend that people with acute low back pain attempt to resume normal activities as soon as possible. They should be conducted without strain or stretching. Simply letting pain be the guide is the best approach for achieving movement. In general, normal activity should be resumed in a gradual fashion as soon as the patient feels ready, reserving therapeutic exercises until after the acute pain has resolved.

Spinal Manipulation

Spinal Manipulation for Uncomplicated Acute Low Back Pain. If pain persists beyond two to three weeks, at least one session of spinal manipulation may be a useful treatment. There are a number of variations, but one example of a spinal manipulation technique is the following:
  • The patient first lies on his or her side.

  • The practitioner grasps the exposed shoulder and either the hip or knee and then presses the upper and lower portions of the body in opposite directions, so that the torso rotates.

  • The shifting vertebrae make a cracking or popping sound, indicating that they have exceeded the normal range of motion.

  • Often this results in a greater sense of ease and mobility. (The effect, however, may be temporary).
Controversy exists over whether on-going manipulations after a first visit work any better for relieving pain than simply gradually resuming normal activity. Some patients consider spinal manipulation to be highly effective for chronic low back pain as well, although evidence in this case is much weaker. Methodological problems have clouded the results of many studies on manipulation techniques, and it is difficult to draw valid conclusions from most of them.

Chiropractic or Osteopathy. Spinal manipulations are typically performed by chiropractors but osteopathic doctors also perform them.
  • One in three people with low back pain seek treatment from a chiropractor. Chiropractic was founded in the US in the late 1800s and has been associated throughout its history with shamanism and folklore as well as with potentially genuine health benefits. There has not been a clear consensus even among its own practitioners about its specific goals. Nevertheless, there is a strong movement within the practice aimed at a scientific and realistic approach. The specific goal of chiropractors is to perform spinal manipulations to improve nerve transmission. Many studies have now confirmed that patients feel more satisfied with their chiropractic care than with treatment from general practitioners. (An analysis of studies reported that chiropractic treatment was beneficial but not significantly better than sham treatments. Interestingly, standard medical treatments had worse results than both chiropractic and sham treatments.)

  • Osteopathy was also founded in the 1800s and also involves physical manipulation as its core approach to healing. Unlike chiropractic, however, osteopathy uses manipulation of the bones, muscles, and tendons to optimize blood circulation. In addition, the general direction of osteopathy over the years has widened to employ a broader range of treatments that now approach those of standard medicine. One 1999 study reported that osteopathy was as effective as medical treatment in relieving low back pain and patients required far less medication and physical therapy. Osteopathic treatment was also far less expensive.
Positive Emotional Effects. Both chiropractors and osteopaths offer verbal assurance and a precise treatment regimen. The direct physical connection through spinal manipulation reinforces the patient-practitioner relationship. The emotional effects of such connections may be as important for healing as the treatments themselves. Chiropractors offer a further psychologic advantage, which is availability to their patients. Many medical doctors believe that because low back pain is self-limited and resolves, the patient can wait for an appointment. A chiropractor, however, is more likely to accept to a patient promptly.

Adverse Effects. Mild and temporary side effects from spinal manipulation are common.

The potential for serious adverse effects from low back manipulations is low. It should be strongly noted, however, that serious complications (including stroke or spinal cord or neck injury) have been reported with manipulations of the neck. Although little research has been done on such complications, an English survey indicated that they are more frequent than commonly thought.

Some chiropractors overuse x-rays, particularly those of the full spine, which may have harmful consequences.

Patients should also be aware that some chiropractors use alternative treatments that have not been proven or rigorously studied. All patients should require objective evidence on the benefits of their treatments.

Muscle Relaxants

A combination of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and muscle relaxants such as cyclobenzaprine (Flexeril), diazepam (Valium), carisoprodol (Soma), or methocarbamol (Robaxin) may be useful for some patients with acute low back pain. Some experts argue, however, that it is not clear which patients would benefit from them. In fact, in some people the tensed back muscles may be protecting the damaged disc or vertebrae, in which case medication to relax them could be harmful.


Approach for Patients with Chronic Back Pain of Unknown Causes

A major review of 12 studies indicated that only intensive treatment using a combination of physical and psychologic rehabilitation programs reduced pain and improved function in patients with chronic low back pain. It should be noted that even with the best treatments, patients with chronic back pain may not experience complete pain relief and may need to develop methods for improving daily life in the face of some persistent pain.

Massage therapy may be helpful for pain that has persisted for more than three weeks. [See What Are Treatments for Uncomplicated Acute Low Back Pain?]
  • Exercise and Physical Therapy. Specific and regular exercise under the guidance of a trained professional is important for reducing pain and improving function, although it is often very difficult to sustain. [ See What Is the Role of Exercise and Movement in Low Back Pain? .]

  • Antidepressants. In some patients antidepressants may be helpful, particularly those known as tricyclics.

  • Pain Relievers. Patients often take pain-relievers, particularly NSAIDs, although they can have severe effects on the gastrointestinal tract over time. Newer agents called COX-2 inhibitors may have fewer effects on the GI tract, but their long-term safety is unknown. Some physicians have recommended long-term opioids for patients with severe chronic pain, but studies suggest they do not improve activity levels and can have significant side effects.

  • Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. This form of psychologic therapy helps change behavior and attitudes toward pain, and may be helpful for dealing with pain.

  • Nerve Blocks. Procedures that block nerves in the pelvic area may be used in severe cases.

Nonsteroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs)

The most commonly prescribed medications for the treatment of chronic back pain are nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). These agents block prostaglandins, the substances that dilate blood vessels and cause inflammation and pain.

Common NSAIDs. There are dozens of NSAIDs. Some of the most common are aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen, and ketoprofen, but many others are now available. [For other NSAIDs, see Box Ulcers and Gastrointestinal Bleeding .] Regular use of even over-the-counter NSAIDs may be hazardous for anyone and has been associated with the following side effects:
  • Ulcers and gastrointestinal bleeding. This is the major danger with long-term use of NSAIDs. [ See Box Ulcers and Gastrointestinal Bleeding .]

  • Increased blood pressure. This is a particular problem for those on medications to reduce hypertension. Piroxicam (Feldene), naproxen (Aleve), and indomethacin (Indocin) appear to pose the greatest risks for high blood pressure. (Sulindac has the smallest effect.) People with hypertension, severe vascular disease, kidney or liver problems, and those taking diuretics must be closely monitored if they need to take NSAIDs.

  • They may delay the emptying of the stomach, which could interfere with the actions of other drugs. The elderly are at special risk.

  • Dizziness, ringing in the ear.

  • Headache.

  • Skin rash.

  • Depression has also been noted.

  • Confusion or bizarre sensation (in some higher-potency NSAIDs, such as indomethacin).

  • Kidney abnormalities have been reported in people taking NSAIDs, which resolves when the drugs are withdrawn. Any sudden weight gain or swelling should be reported to a physician.

  • Diabetics taking oral hypoglycemics may need to adjust the dosage if they also need to take NSAIDs because of possible harmful interactions between the drugs.

Ulcers and Gastrointestinal Bleeding

NSAIDs are a major cause of ulcers and gastrointestinal (GI) bleeding. Gastrointestinal complications from the use of NSAIDs account for almost 100,000 hospitalizations and at least 16,000 deaths a year in the United States. Bleeding and ulcers can occur at any time, with or without symptoms. One study indicated that taking NSAIDs for only six months posed a risk for symptomatic ulcers that was greater than 1%. The risk for bleeding is continuous as long as a patient is on these drugs and may even persist as long as a year after the drug is discontinued. Alcohol abuse may increase the risk for GI bleeding when taking NSAIDs. Because NSAIDs reduce the clotting of the blood, anyone undergoing surgery should stop taking the medication a week before the operation.

Ulcer Risk for Specific NSAIDs. One study ranked the sixteen most commonly used NSAIDs according to risk for ulcers and bleeding.
  • Lowest Risk: nabumetone (Relafen), etodolac (Lodine), salsalate, and sulindac (Clinoril).

  • Medium risk: diclofenac (Voltaren), ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil, Nuprin, Rufen), aspirin, naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn, Naprelan, Anaprox), and tolmetin (Tolectin). (Drugs within this group vary in risk. Studies show, for example, that short-term use of naproxen is twice as likely as ibuprofen to be associated with hospitalization from GI bleeding. Although ketoprofen (Actron, Orudis KT) was considered a medium-risk drug, another study reported that even one week of taking the drug at low doses causes significant GI injury.
Highest risk: flurbiprofen (Ansaid), piroxicam (Feldene), fenoprofen, indomethacin (Indocin), meclofenamate (Meclomen), and oxaprozin.

Drugs for Prevention of NSAID-Induced Ulcers. For people who need to take NSAIDs regularly, some agents are available that may protect against bleeding and ulcers.
  • Proton-pump inhibitors include omeprazole (Prilosec), lansoprazole (Prevacid), rabeprazole (Aciphex), and pantoprozole. Proton pump inhibitors are possibly the most protective agents and can actually heal existing ulcers. Their use has been demonstrated to reduce NSAID-ulcer rates by as much as 80% compared with no treatment.

  • Misoprostol. Misoprostol is a prostaglandin, the protective substance blocked by NSAID use. It protects against the major intestinal toxicity of NSAIDs. It is used to prevent NSAID-induced ulcers, both duodenal and gastric, but is not useful in healing existing ulcers.

  • H2 Blockers. Some H2 blockers may help prevent NSAID-induced ulcers. These drugs are available over the counter and include famotidine (Pepcid AC), ranitidine (Zantac), cimetidine (Tagamet), and nizatidine (Axid). In one 2000 study, ranitidine and famotidine were associated with a lower risk for bleeding in patients taking NSAIDs, but another study found no protection from cimetidine.

COX-2 Inhibitors. Celecoxib (Celebrex), rofecoxib (Vioxx), and meloxicam (Mobic) are known as COX-2 (cyclooxygenase-2) inhibitors, the so-called super-aspirins.

Benefits. These agents may prove to be as effective and less harmful to the GI tract than NSAIDs. Importantly, studies are reporting a lower incidence of ulcers and other toxic side effects in patients taking the COX-2 inhibitors than in those taking NSAIDs. The drugs were all equally effective in relieving pain. (One study compared celecoxib with the NSAIDs ibuprofen or diclofenac and the other compared rofecoxib with the NSAID naproxen.) One 1999 study even found the rate of GI problems with celecoxib was equal to that in people who do not take NSAIDs at all. COX-2 inhibitors are currently more expensive than traditional NSAIDs, however, and some insurers do not pay for them.

Theoretically, they may even have properties that produce less adverse effects on cartilage than NSAIDs may have.

Some early evidence also suggests they may be protective against colon cancer and possibly even Alzheimer's disease.

Possible Negative Effects. In spite of their promise, some researchers theorize that inhibiting COX-2 may have some negative side effects over the long term:
  • Although COX-2 inhibitors are very likely to have a lower risk for ulcers and GI bleeding than standard NSAIDs, studies have been mixed on whether patients taking COX-2 inhibitors have the same gastrointestinal symptoms (eg, diarrhea, abdominal discomfort) as standard NSAIDs. Vioxx may pose a higher risk for symptoms than Celebrex. (Other side effects found with short-term use include headache, and dizziness.)

  • One 2000 study observed that the COX-2 inhibitors had some adverse effects on kidney function, particularly in elderly people, that were similar to the effects of standard NSAIDs. This effect can also trigger fluid build up and high blood pressure. (Celebrex may have fewer of these effects than Vioxx.)

  • Patients taking anticoagulant drugs may experience a higher risk for bleeding with the use of these agents.

  • Studies are reporting a higher incidence of heart attacks in patients taking Vioxx and possibly Celebrex than in those taking the standard NSAID naproxen. Some evidence suggests that both COX-2 inhibitors may increase the risk for blood clots. Experts also suggest that heart patients with chronic pain may be substituting COX-2 inhibitors for heart-protective NSAIDs (such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or possibly naproxen). Patients with heart disease who are taking low-dose aspirin should continue it even while they are taking COX-2 inhibitors.

  • A few cases of psychiatric side effects (hallucinations), fluid build up, high blood pressure, and excess potassium in the blood has been observed with higher doses of celecoxib or rofecoxib.

  • They may have negative effects on pregnancy and fertility.

  • No one who has allergic reactions, hives, or asthma from sulfa drugs, aspirin, or other NSAIDs, should take a COX-2 inhibitor.

  • The use of COX-2 inhibitors can interfere with many other drugs taken concurrently, including many taken for heart disease and high blood pressure. Patients should discuss all other medications with their physician.
More research is needed to confirm or refute any possible hazard.


Some experts suggest that treating people with low back pain and depression for the psychological condition may be more beneficial and cost-effective than back treatments. Certain antidepressants, called tricyclics, can even be effective pain killers in non-depressed people with chronic back pain. They include amitriptyline (Elavil, Endep), desipramine (Norpramin), doxepin (Sinequan), imipramine (Tofranil), amoxapine (Asendin), nortriptyline (Pamelor, Aventyl), and maprotiline (Ludiomill). It should be noted that tricyclics can have severe side effects. Nonetheless, experts believe there is a useful role for these drugs that warrants further investigation.

Potent Pain Relievers

Opioids. Unless the pain is very severe, experts advise against routinely prescribing pain killers containing opioids (eg, morphine, codeine, meperidine [Demerol], oxycodone [Oxycontin], or tramadol). A skin patch containing an opioid called transdermal fentanyl (Duragesic) may relieve chronic back pain more effectively than oral opioids. Side effects for all opioids include drowsiness, impaired judgment, nausea, and constipation. Addiction is a risk, although less than is commonly believed when these medications are used for pain relief.

Stress Reduction and Behavioral Techniques

According to a 2001 review of studies, only intensive programs that include psychologic as well physical rehabilitation therapies were successful in reducing and improving function in patients with chronic low back pain.

Stress Reduction. Stress reducing techniques, including relaxation methods and meditation, may be helpful. One study, for example, reported that meditation was beneficial in reducing pain and improving mood among chronic pain sufferers who had not responded to traditional care.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. Studies report that a course of cognitive-behavioral therapy helps reduce chronic back pain and enhances the patient's ability to deal with it. The primary goal of cognitive therapy in such cases is to change the distorted perceptions that patients have of themselves and their approach to pain. Using specific tasks and self-observation, patients gradually shift their fixed ideas that they are helpless against the pain that dominates their lives to the perception that pain is only one negative and, to a degree, a manageable experience among many positive ones. In one study, therapists also taught relaxation techniques and methods to improve posture. The sessions were two and a half hours each week for 12 weeks. More research is needed.

Massage Therapy

To date, no strong studies have been conducted to verify the effects of massage therapy. Small recent ones, however, have indicated that it is as effective as spinal manipulation and more effective than acupuncture or self-care. For example a 2001 study comparing massage therapy with Traditional Chinese Medical acupuncture and self-care found massage to be more effective than either at ten weeks and it produced significantly better results than the acupuncture after a year. (None of these approaches, however, offered complete relief.)

Vertebral Axial Decompression

Vertebral axial decompression (VAX-D) is proving to reduce pain and improve function in patients wwith chronic low back pain. The therapy employs a special table that controls adjustments along the lines of the spinal column. Some evidence supports its benefits.

Alternative Treatments

Herbal Remedies. There have been claims for a number of herbal and so-called natural remedies for relief of back pain. One study of extracts of harpagophytum (a South African herb commonly called Devil's Claw or Grapple Plant) showed some promise. Herbal remedies for back pain may include relaxants such as black haw (viburnum prunifolium) or valerian (valeriana officinalis), anti-inflammatories such as turmeric (curcuma longa) or arnica montana (for external use only), circulatory stimulants such as gingko biloba or rosemary, and pain relievers such as white willow bark (salix alba). It should be strongly noted that if any substance has beneficial effects against serious illness it also, like any drug, most likely has side effects and may even be harmful for some people. In addition, herbal and so-called natural remedies are not regulated, few studies have been conducted on any of these products, and the quality or safety cannot be guaranteed. [See Warnings on Alternative and So-Called Natural Remedies.]

Warnings on Alternative and So-Called Natural Remedies

It should be strongly noted that alternative or natural remedies are not regulated and their quality is not publicly controlled. In addition, any substance that can affect the body's chemistry can, like any drug, produce side effects that may be harmful. Even if studies report positive benefits from herbal remedies, the compounds used in such studies are, in most cases, not what are being marketed to the public.

There have been a number of reported cases of serious and even lethal side effects from herbal products. In addition, some so-called natural remedies were found to contain standard prescription medication. Most problems reported occur in herbal remedies imported from Asia, with one study reporting a significant percentage of such remedies containing toxic metals.

The following website is building a database of natural remedy brands that it tests and rates. Not all are available yet.

The Food and Drug Administration has a program called MEDWATCH for people to report adverse reactions to untested substances, such as herbal remedies and vitamins (call 800-332-1088).

Transcutaneous Electric Nerve Stimulation. Transcutaneous electric nerve stimulation (TENS) uses low-level electrical pulses to suppress back pain. The standard approach is to give 80 to 100 pulses per second for 45 minutes three times a day. The patients are barely aware of the sensation. A variant (sometimes called percutaneous electrical nerve stimulation or PENS) applies these pulses through a small needle to acupuncture points. A 2000 analysis of studies report that either TENS or PENS appears to offer some relief for chronic low back pain, at least temporarily. PENS may be more effective. It may help men more than women. In any case, neither approach appears to be helpful for relief of acute low back pain in most patients.

Acupuncture. Acupuncture is now a common alternative treatment for certain kinds of pain. It involves inserting small pins or exerting pressure on certain "energy" points in the body. When the needles have been placed successfully, the patient is supposed to experience a sensation known as Teh Chi, which brings a feeling of fullness, numbness, tingling, and warmth with some soreness around the acupuncture point. Unfortunately, the strongest evidence to date suggests that, in general, acupuncture does not have a major effect on low back pain. Still it may be helpful for certain patients with back pain, such as pregnant women, who must avoid medications. Anyone who has acupuncture should be sure it is performed in a reputable location with experienced practitioners who use sterilized equipment.


Resuming Activity Levels after Acute Back Pain

Overexertion may be as unhelpful as prolonged bed rest during acute back pain. (In one study, recovery from acute back pain was slower for patients who immediately embarked on flexibility exercises than for those who gradually resumed normal activity.) Walking, stationary biking, swimming, and even light jogging, however, may begin within two weeks of symptoms. An incremental aerobic exercise program is less stressful than stretching or performing exercises that strengthen the trunk muscles. Patients should never force themselves to exercise if, by doing so, pain increases.

Exercises to Avoid during Recovery. It should be strongly noted that incorrect movements or long-term high-impact exercise is a cause of back pain. People vulnerable to back pain should avoid activities that put undue stress on the lower back or require sudden twisting movements, such as football, golf, ballet, and weight lifting. Jogging is usually not recommended, at least not until the pain is gone and muscles are stronger. Exercises that put the lower back under pressure should be avoided until the back muscles are well toned. Such exercises include leg lifts done in a prone (face-down) position, straight leg sit-ups, and leg curls using exercise equipment.

The Role of Physical Therapy

Physical therapy with a trained professional may be useful if pain has not improved within the first three weeks. It is, in fact, important for any person who has chronic low back pain to have an exercise program guided by professionals who understand the limitations and special needs of back pain and who can address individual health conditions. One study indicated that patients who planned their own exercise did worse than those in physical therapy or physician-directed programs.

Physical therapy typically includes the following:
  • The first stage involves patient education and training the patient in correct movement. Sometimes heat or electro-therapies are employed, although their benefits are unproven.

  • If back pain has continued beyond five weeks, physical therapy is used for rehabilitation. It employs exercises to help the patients keep the spine in neutral positions during all daily activities.

Exercise for Chronic Back Pain

Exercise plays a very beneficial role in chronic back pain. In one study, for example, patients with back pain lasting for an average of 18 months were assigned eight one-hour exercise sessions over four weeks. They showed greater improvement in nearly every area, including reduced pain and increased capacity, compared to patients who did not exercise. The positive benefits of exercise not only affect strength and flexibility but they also alter and improve the patients' attitudes toward their disability and pain.

Repetition is the key to increasing flexibility, building endurance, and strengthening the specific muscles needed to support and neutralize the spine. Some exercise programs used for prevention or for chronic low back pain include the following:
  • Low Impact Aerobic Exercises. Low-impact aerobic exercises, such as swimming, bicycling, and walking, can strengthen muscles in the abdomen and back without over-straining the back. Programs that use strengthening exercises while swimming may be a particularly beneficial approach for many patients with back pain.

  • Lumbar Extension Strength Training. Exercises called lumbar extension strength training are proving to be effective. Generally, these exercises attempt to strengthen the abdomen, improve lower back mobility, strength, and endurance, and enhance flexibility in the hip and hamstring muscles and tendons at the back of the thigh. [For examples of some good exercises for the back, see Box. ]

  • Yoga, Tai Chi, and Chi Kung. These exercises combine low-impact physical movements and meditation. They are based on principles of disciplining the mind to achieve a physical and mental balance and can be very helpful in preventing recurrences of lower back pain.

  • Flexibility Exercises. Whether flexibility exercises alone offer any significant benefit is uncertain. One study suggested that any benefits derived from flexibility exercises are lost unless the exercise regimens are sustained.

  • Retraining Deep Muscles. Of interest are studies that are finding a link between low back pain and impaired motor control of deep muscles of the back and trunk. According to these studies, contraction exercises specifically designed to retrain these muscles may be effective for patients with both acute and chronic pain.

Specific Exercises for Low Back Strength

Perform the following exercises at least three times a week:

Partial Sit-ups. Partial sit-ups or crunches strengthen the abdominal muscles.

Keep the knees bent and the lower back flat on the floor while raising the shoulders up three to six inches.

Exhale on the way up and inhale on the way down.

Perform this exercise slowly eight to ten times with the arms across the chest.

Pelvic Tilt. The pelvic tilt alleviates tight or fatigued lower back muscles.
  • Lie on the back with the knees bent and feet flat on the floor.

  • Tighten the buttocks and abdomen so that they tip up slightly.

  • Press the lower back to the floor, hold for one second and then relax.

  • Be sure to breathe evenly.
Over time increase this exercise until it is held for five seconds. Then, extend the legs a little more so that the feet are further away from the body and try it again.

Stretching Lower-Back Muscles. The following are three exercises for stretching the lower back:
  • Lie on the back with knees bent and legs together. Keeping arms at the sides, slowly roll the knees over to one side until totally relaxed. Hold this position for about 20 seconds (while breathing evenly) and then repeat on the other side.

  • Lying on the back, hold one knee and pull it gently toward the chest. Hold for 20 seconds. Repeat with other knee.

  • While supported on hands and knees, lift and straighten right hand and left leg at the same time. Hold for three seconds while tightening the abdominal muscles. The back should be straight. Alternate with the other arm and leg and repeat on each side eight to 20 times.
Note: No one with low back pain should perform exercises that require bending over right after getting up in the morning. At that time, the discs are more fluid-filled and more vulnerable to pressure from this movement.

Tips for Daily Movement and Inactivity

The way a person moves, stands, or sleeps during the day plays a major role in back pain:
  • Maintaining good posture is very important. This means keeping the ears, shoulders, and hips in a straight line with the head up and stomach pulled in. It is best not to stand for long periods of time. If it is necessary, walk as much as possible and wear shoes without heels, preferably with cushioned soles. Using a low stool, alternate resting each foot on it.

  • Sitting puts the most pressure on the back. Chairs should either have straight backs or low-back support. If possible, chairs should swivel to avoid twisting at the waist, have arm rests, and adjustable backs. While sitting, the knees should be a little higher than the hip, so a low stool or hassock is useful to put the feet on. A small pillow or rolled towel behind the lower back helps relieve pressure while either sitting or driving.

  • Riding and particularly driving for long periods in a vehicle increases stress. Move the seat as far forward as possible to avoid bending forward. The back of the seat should be reclined not more than 30° and, if possible, the seat bottom should be tilted slightly up in front. For long rides, one should stop and walk around about every hour and avoid lifting or carrying objects immediately after the ride.

  • Be sure to have a firm mattress. If the mattress is too soft, a 1/4-inch plywood board can be put between the mattress and box spring. On the other hand, some people have experienced morning backache from a mattress that is too hard. The back is the best guide.

Tips for Lifting and Bending

Anyone who engages in heavy lifting should take precautions when lifting and bending:
  • If an object is too heavy or awkward, get help.

  • Spread your feet apart to give a wide base of support.

  • Stand as close as possible to the object being lifted.

  • Bend at the knees; tighten stomach muscles and tuck buttocks in so that the pelvis is rolled under and the small of the back is flexed slightly. Do not arch the back. (Even when not lifting an object, always try to use this posture when stooping down).

  • Hold objects close to the body to reduce the load on the back.

  • Lift using the leg muscles, not those in the back.

  • Stand up without bending forward from the waist.

  • Never twist from the waist while bending or lifting any heavy object. If you need to move an object to one side, point your toes in that direction and pivot toward it.

  • If an object can be moved without lifting, pull it, don't push.


General Approach to Severe Low Back Pain

Early Stage. It is important that any serious medical causes as well as cauda equina syndrome and progressive nerve damage be ruled out first. In general, early treatments for severe low back pain or for episodes of chronic low back pain are similar to those of acute uncomplicated low back pain, including avoiding bed rest. If common pain relievers, such as NSAIDs are not effective, narcotic agents may be needed for a limited period. Corticosteroid injections may be helpful for some patients.

Approach for Patients with Herniated Discs:
  • Nonsurgical Procedures. In patients with herniated discs, non surgical methods should be used for at least a month before considering surgery. Non surgical procedures include spinal manipulation, massage therapy, and physical therapy. (Patients should wait at least two to three weeks before using spinal manipulation, since early effectiveness and safety are not yet clear.)

  • Surgery. According to a 2001 review of studies, about 10% of patients experience pain after six weeks that is severe enough to warrant consideration of discectomy, the standard procedure for herniated disks. For many of these patients, surgery may bring significant relief. In one 2001 study, for example, 70% of patients with moderate to severe sciatica who had had surgery reported improvement. And the improvement is superior to that from nonsurgical treatments for about four years in most patients. After that, and by ten years, however, it is not clear if surgery maintains its advantage over nonsurgical approaches.
Approach for Patients with Spinal Stenosis
  • Preventing Falls. Falling is a risk for patients with spinal stenosis. They should avoid alcohol and sedatives. Leg strengthening exercises (walking, cycling) may be helpful, with brief resting if pain occurs.

  • Nonsurgical Treatments. The use of common pain relievers, such as NSAIDs, physical therapy, and steroid or other spinal injections may be helpful for some patients.

  • Surgery. If pain is persistent, patients may require surgery, most often a procedure called decompressive laminectomy. Some patients may require spinal fusion as well. Studies suggest that surgery reduces back pain in many patients, at least for a few years. By four years after surgery, however, 30% of patients have severe pain again and 10% have had another operation. It should be noted that surgery does not always improve outcome and in some cases can even make it worse. Surgery can be an extremely effective approach, however, for certain patients with severe back pain that does not respond to conservative measures.

Injections of different substances are sometimes used to treat low back pain caused by nerve impingement. The injection is usually an epidural, which is directed into the spaces between the outer membrane of the spine and the vertebrae. None of these substances cure the problem.
  • Corticosteroids. A one-time injection of a corticosteroid (commonly called a steroid) is directed as close to the injured location as possible. Corticosteroids reduce inflammation and this approach may short-cut sciatic pain until the body heals itself. This is a temporary, not permanent, solution. Studies that measure the benefits of steroids on sciatica or low back pain, however, are conflicting. In fact there is some evidence that patients can experience a rebound effect within a few months and the pain returns.

  • Hypertonic saline (salt water solution). Epidural injections of saline are being investigated for breaking up scar tissue. One 2001 study compared targeted injections of saline and steroids directed at the nerve root. Although steroid injections had more immediate benefits, both offered improvement, and by three months, patients who had saline injections experienced less pain than the steroid group.

  • Local anesthetics. Injections of anesthetics such as xylocaine or bupivacaine may also help some patients.

  • Botulinum. Injections of botulinum toxin (Botox) in the lower back are under investigation. Very small amounts of the bacterial toxin temporarily paralyze muscle tissue. Studies in 2000 and 2001 reported that Botox relieved pain by at least half in between 60% and 78% of patients compared to between 12% and 28% who reported the same benefit from placebo. The participants experienced no adverse effects. In the 2001 study, however, the benefits of Botox injections did subside by six months.

Indications for Surgery

The rate of all types of back surgery is more than 40% higher in the US than in any other country. Surgical treatments for low back pain rose from 190,000 in 1983 to 335,000 in 1994.

The most common reasons for surgery for low back pain are sciatica and spinal stenosis. Evidence of a herniated disc and nerve compression, however, is not an automatic indication for surgery. It is advised only for selected patients. (For example, the best spinal stenosis candidates are those with a condition known as block spinal stenosis.) Some experts believe that less than 1% of back pain patients need aggressive medical or surgical treatments.

The primary indication for surgery is the following:

Pain that has existed for over four months, has not responded to conservative treatments, and is so debilitating that it interferes with normal functioning.

Other, specific indications for surgery include the following:
  • Progressive weakening in the legs.

  • Evidence of some physical abnormality of the spine, such as a bone spur.

  • Cases of cauda equina syndrome, in which an emergency operation may need to be performed to avoid permanent damage.
A patient should be sure that the surgeon has had significant experience with any procedure to be performed. Research indicates that surgery may have better short-term effects than medical treatment (in terms of immediate employability and functioning), but that in the long-term they are about equal.


Standard Surgery. Discectomy is the surgical removal of the diseased disc, thereby relieving pressure on the spine. In spite of the fact that discectomy has been performed for 40 years, few studies have been conducted to determine its real effectiveness. A 2000 analysis of previous studies reported that it appeared to offer faster relief than medical treatment, but long-term superiority is uncertain. Although less invasive techniques are being developed and described below, at this time they are no more effective than the standard approach. One 2001 study indicated that patients who undergo surgery for moderate to severe sciatica have somewhat better improvement in symptoms after five years than those who receive nonsurgical treatments. The benefits of surgery decrease over time, however.

Endoscopic Discectomy. Less invasive endoscopic variations are proving to be effective for some patients. Endoscopy employs a catheter (a thin tube) that contains tiny cameras and surgical instruments that are inserted through small incisions. Various endoscopic approaches are proving to be useful.
  • Percutaneous discectomy (PAD) uses a tube with a device at the tip that cuts away some of the nucleus pulposus and a vacuum that then sucks this gelatinous matter out. This procedure is also being investigated for disks that have tears in the annular rings.

  • Endoscopic laser foraminoplasty (ELF) is a minimally-invasive procedure that is proving to be effective and to have fewer complications than other spinal surgeries. It employs lasers to locate the likely source of pain and remove diseased tissue with minimal complications.
Some experts argue that endoscopic procedures are rarely useful and patients often need repeat operations. Nevertheless, they pose a lower risk for complications than major surgery and some experts urge they be used for selected patients.

Complications. Scar tissue is a significant problem, since it can cause persistent low back pain afterward. Anti-scarring agents or certain devices may help reduce surgical scars and thereby postoperative pain.

Laminectomy or Laminotomy

Operations that shave off part of a vertebra (laminotomy) or remove all of it (laminectomy) may be used in certain cases of spinal stenosis or spondylolisthesis to decompress the nerve. It may also be used to remove benign tumors on the spine. Although either procedure often brings immediate relief from pain, a 1999 statistical study suggested that it is inappropriately performed in 60% or more of sciatica cases. There are small risks to the operation and it is not always successful. Some recurrence of back pain and sciatica occurs in half to two-thirds of postoperative patients. One study reported that the operation in children and young adults can increase the risk for spinal deformity.

Spinal Fusion

In cases where abnormal positioning or vertebrae movement puts pressure on the nerves, such as spinal stenosis or spondylolisthesis, surgeons may fuse vertebrae together. (It is not clear, however, whether fusion is any more effective for stenosis or spondylolisthesis than procedures for reducing disc pressure.) Fusion employs a bone graft or some other device to join the vertebrae together. One medical device uses a tiny hollow metal cage, which is implanted into the disc space. Bone is removed from the patient and packed inside the cage; over time the bone grows through the holes and around the device, fusing the vertebrae. In one study, the device was successful in 72% of patients, reducing pain without any loss of muscle strength or function.

Postoperative Period: Complications and Outlook

Many patients still have back pain after discectomy that delays discharge from the hospital. Narcotics are usually needed; adding an injected NSAID may speed resolution of pain. It should be noted that one study reported that an injected NSAID after fusion procedures may reduce the chances for successful bone healing and union. Other complications of spinal surgery can include nerve and muscle damage, infection, scarring, and the need for reoperation. Patients now often remain in bed only three or four days after disc surgery; studies indicate that such patients have the same or even fewer complications than those who stay in bed for weeks. It may take four to six weeks for full recovery. Gentle exercise may be recommended.

Other Techniques

Intradiscal Electrothermal Treatment. A promising procedure known as intradiscal electrothermal treatment (IDET) employs a probe that uses electricity to heat the injured disc tissue, specifically the annular ring nerve fibers. Heat is applied for about 17 minutes. After healing, the disc is toughened and desensitized. It requires a substantial post-operative recovery period, but may prove to be a less invasive alternative to surgery. Early reports are promising, but use is not yet widespread and long-term risks and benefits are unknown.

Nerve Blocks. A number of surgical techniques are available for relieving pain by impairing nerves that are causing pain due to impingement. In one 2000 study that used electrical stimulation to block the nerves, 60% of the patients reported at least 90% relief of pain after a year, and 87% reported at least 60% relief.


American Physical Therapy Association, 1111 N. Fairfax St., Alexandra, VA 22314-1148. Call (703-684-2782) or (800-999-2782) on the Internet (

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, 6300 N. River Road, Rosemont, IL 60018-4262. Call (847-823-7186) or (800-346-AAOS) on the Internet (

President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, Department W, 200 Independence Ave., S.W., Room 738-H, Washington, DC 20201-0004. Call (202-690-9000) for general information on exercise and fitness.

The council publishes Physical Activity and Fitness Research Digest .

National Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, Information Clearinghouse, National Institutes of Health, 1 AMS Circle, Bethesda, Maryland 20892-3675. Call (301-495-4484 ) or on the Internet (

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), 4676 Columbia Parkway, Cincinnati OH 45226. Call (800-356-4674) or on the Internet (

American Chronic Pain Association, P.O. Box 850, Rocklin, CA 95677. Call (916) 632-0922 or on the Internet (

National Chronic Pain Outreach Association. Call (540-862-9437)

American Pain Society, 4700 W. Lake Avenue, Glenview, IL 60025. Call (847-375-4715) or on the Internet (

International Association for the Study of Pain, 909 NE 43rd St., Suite 306, Seattle, WA 98105-6020. Call (206-547-6409) or on the Internet (

The National Association for Chiropractic Medicine, 15427 Baybrook Drive, Houston, TX 77062. Call (281-280-8262) or on the Internet (

This association believes that chiropracty should be limited to treating joint conditions using scientific prinicples. (The other two chiropractice organizations are more controversial and tend toward alternative treatments. American Chiropractors' Association stresses vitamins and natural diets as well as joint conditioning. The International Chiropractors' Association still advocates 19th century principles of relating pinched nerves to overall health.)

BackCycler. Call (800-959-3746) ) or on the Internet (

BackCycler is a device designed by orthopedists at the Spine Institute of New England to alleviate the discomfort of sitting in a car or airplane.

North American Spine Society 22 Calendar Ct. 2nd Floor LaGrange, IL 60525 Phone: (708) 588-8080 Fax: (708) 588-1080

American Physical Therapy Association 1111 North Fairfax St. Alexandria, VA 22314-1488 Phone: (703) 684-2782 Toll-free: (800) 999-2782 Fax: (703) 684-7343

Arthritis Foundation 1330 West Peachtree St. Atlanta, GA 30309 Phone: (404) 872-7100 Toll-free: (800) 283-7800

Internet Sites

The International Intradiscal Therapy Society (IITS) (

International Spinal Injection Society (

This site provides results of independent tests of the quality and potency of herbal and nutritional products. (

Resources for injured workers:

New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health. ( For additional, updated information on OSHA's

ergonomics rule, visit "The Clipping File," part of the Health & Safety

News section of the NYCOSH website.

Illustrations of Back Surgery

Site has good description of back procedures (

Another site with good descriptions of back operations (



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