If you experience acute (non-chronic) lower back pain, you’re in good company. About 80% of adults will have lower back pain in their lives. A new study looks at the effects of spinal manipulation on relieving this all-too-familiar ache.
There you are: sitting at your desk near the end of the workday, when you feel a sudden twinge in your lower back. A dull ache creeps in as you absent-mindedly begin massaging the area. Your back stiffens a bit more on the drive home, and by the time you plop down on your couch, you can hardly focus on anything else than the nagging pain in your lower back. Welcome to acute lower back pain, an affliction that will visit itself upon 4 in 5 adults at some point during their life.
It’s important first and foremost to recognize that lower back pain is a perfectly common condition that is generally not serious, akin to a headache. Decades ago, the prevailing wisdom was usually bedrest for a person suffering from acute (non-recurring) lower back pain. These days, modern medicine tells us that immobilizing your back may actually do more harm than good. As it turns out, spinal manipulation — that is, stretching and/or “cracking” your back — has been shown to provide some relief. However, that revelation comes with some important qualifiers.
First, know that the relief may not be long lasting: you may feel better after cracking your back or visiting a chiropractor, but the pain is likely to return shortly afterwards. In fact, in a recent Department of Veteran Affairs study, spinal manipulation was shown to improve back pain about “one point” on a subjective 1-10 pain scale. Taking an over-the-counter pain relief pill was shown to have about the same benefit: one point.
With a condition as common and un-serious as acute lower back pain, the most important thing when it comes to treatment is to try the least invasive/powerful pain management strategies first, and only work up the ladder if there is no improvement. In other words, prescribing a powerful painkiller for simple acute lower back pain would be an absolute disaster of overkill… like going fishing with a bazooka!
If you have acute lower back pain, start by massaging the afflicted area and applying some heat to loosen and relax the surrounding muscles. If that doesn’t help, try (carefully and gently) stretching your back for 15-30 minutes and/or taking an over-the-counter pain medication. The next step, should that fail to provide relief, would be to see if your doctor approves of you visiting a chiropractor or acupuncturist (although these options are not for everyone).
Above all, remember this about normal acute lower back pain: soon enough, it will simply go away on its own.