Did you know that back pain is one of the most common problems in the UK which affects 4 out of every 5 people at some point in their life?
If you are one of those sufferers then it might be due to spinal disc degeneration.
Let me explain:
As we get older we lose the elasticity and strength from our spinal discs – this occurs between the ages of 30-50. These discs act as shock absorbers to the general wear and tear we put our spine through when we:
- Lift heavy objects inappropriately.
- Sit in the same position for too long all day, every day.
- Injure our backs in an accident, at work or playing sport.
- And did you know that smoking causes the discs to degenerate even faster than in non-smokers?
Well the good news is that that lower back pain from disc degeneration often goes away over time as the inflammation dies down and the disc settles into a stable position.
How do you know if you have a spinal disc problem?
Most people with spinal disc degeneration will experience continuous, but tolerable pain that will occasionally intensify for a few days or more.
Symptoms can vary, but the general characteristics usually include:
- Low back pain that can move into the buttocks, hips and legs.
- Low back pain that is often worse when sitting or standing.
- Pain that is made worse by certain movements such as twisting, lifting or bending forward.
Can you imagine what it would be like not to have back pain, to be able to sit properly and carry on with your daily activity and not to be crippled with pain?
These are some simple steps you can take which may help ease your pain.
Modify your activity
A simple way to address the problem is to avoid lifting heavy objects and refrain from playing sports that involve twisting your back such as golf, football or basketball. This also includes doing heavy household chores, such as, gardening and DIY. It is also best to stop driving for long periods without a break.
Heat and Ice
In general a new injury will trigger inflammation with swelling. Ice will decrease the blood flow to the injured area, reducing inflammation and swelling. Usually ice should be applied between 24 and 48 hours after an injury in muscles and tendons.
For heat you can use an electric pad or microwavable heating pads or simply a hot water bottle. Be careful not to scald yourself and make sure you wrap the hot water bottle in a cotton cloth if it doesn’t already come with a cover. Chronic pain can be treated with heat which will bring blood to the area and promote healing. You can use heat for stiff joints and muscle soreness.
Do not apply heat or ice for longer than 20 minutes at a time.
Do not use heat if there is swelling, instead use ice first.
Do not use heat if you are diabetic or have poor circulation.
Likewise, when you apply ice do not apply it directly to the skin but wrap it in a thin cloth.
If you are not sure how to use heat or ice ask your doctor or physical therapist.
Medication can be used to alleviate back pain. Anti-inflammatory medication such as ibuprofen, naproxen, diclofenac etc. can be bought over the counter.
Stronger medication such as muscle relaxants will be prescribed by your GP according to the severity of the pain.
Always make sure that you read the instructions on the label and consult your doctor or pharmacist as not all medications are suitable for you.
If you find that medication does not ease off the pain then you may benefit from epidural steroial injections. Your doctor will advise you on this.
The aim of the treatment is pain relief and you may have up to 3 in a year. The injection delivers medication to the location of the source of the irritation.
The effects of the injection are temporary and may ease the discomfort for one week to a year. However, this may provide enough pain relief to start a rehabilitative and stretching programme, see below.
Surgery – Lumbar spinal fusion
Surgery is the last resort. Lumbar spinal surgery might be considered when you are still in pain after six months and the pain significantly impairs your daily activities. It is designed to reduce the motion of the painful vertebrae.
If surgery is the last route to take then you need to discuss the following with your GP:
- How the surgery will be carried out.
- The risks involved.
- The recovery time.
- Physical rehabilitation after the operation.
Osteopathy can play an important role in that it can be used as a preventative tool. It does not stop the natural wear and tear process on our body as we age, but it can help the joints to be more mobile and less stiff. Likewise, soft tissue work can improve the blood supply to your muscles and help to clear waste accumulated in them. Regular treatments can help your quality of life.
General stretching to relieve back pain
Please, consult your physical therapist before attempting any of these exercises.
Patients with persistent back pain may find that stretching their back, legs and buttocks is useful as it decrease the tightness in the soft tissues. The spinal column and its associated muscles, tendons and ligaments need to move and any limitation can make the pain worse. Below are four useful stretches.
Figure 1- Knees to Chest Stretch
Lie on your back with your knees bent and your heels on the floor. Place both hands behind your knees and bring both of them to your chest.
Figure 3 – Piriformis stretch
Lie on your back and cross one leg over the other and gently pull the other knee toward your chest until a stretch is felt in the buttock area.
Figure 4 – Pelvic tilt to strengthen the low back.
Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Tighten stomach muscle and pull the lower back to the floor.
- Stretching should cause NO pain and should be carried out slowly without any bouncing movements.
- Hold the stretch for 10-20 seconds.
- Repeat the stretches 5 to 10 times.
- Make sure you wear comfortable clothing.
If you experience pain, please do not carry out the above stretches but contact your doctor or therapist who will help you to achieve the best results.
Low impact exercise such as walking, cycling or swimming (but NOT breast stroke) help to support healing.
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