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Physiotherapy For Low Back Pain Part 1: The Three Types Of Back Pain

Low back pain is a very common problem that our physiotherapists treat every day here at Central Performance. There are lots of myths and conflicting advice out there, and this is very confusing and overwhelming for someone looking for treatment during a back pain episode. Although everyone’s presentation is unique and an individual assessment is the foundation of gold-standard treatment, there are some solid research-based guidelines that can really help you understand the process.

In this post we summarise some of the main things you need to know about the 3 different types of low back pain. The next post talks more about how physio’s can treat the pain, and the final one is about reducing the risk of having more problems in the future.

Low Back Pain Is Very Common

The first thing to know is that low back pain is REALLY common, with approximately 80% of Australians experiencing at least one episode of back pain in their lives. Whilst back pain can be very severe and debilitating, the good news is that the majority of cases of back pain DO NOT involve serious damage and will improve within 6-8 weeks.

Unfortunately there is a very high recurrence rate for back pain, meaning that if you have one episode you are very likely to have another one. Reducing this risk of future pain episodes is one of the major goals of physiotherapy treatment for low back pain. As well as physio you will often get great benefits from seeing an exercise physiologist who can prescribe an effective exercise program for you to reduce your risk of future problems.

Why Should I See A Physio For My Low Back Pain?

Even though most cases of back pain improve within 6-8 weeks, seeing a physiotherapist early can help you in three major ways;

1. An early diagnosis can rule out any serious pathology or the need for investigations like x-rays or an MRI (see below!)
2. Getting the right treatment and advice early can speed up your recovery, get rid of your pain faster and get you moving again
3. The right treatment and advice can help you minimise your risk of future pain episode

Two Important Facts About Low Back Pain And Imaging (X-ray, MRI and CT)

There are two very important findings to keep in mind from extensive back pain research looking at the use of radiology investigations like x-rays, MRI’s and CT’s;

1. The vast majority of back pains DO NOT need radiology investigations. Except in specific circumstances (see below), early imaging is not needed from a diagnostic or treatment planning point of view, and therefore it is generally unhelpful. Importantly, there is a solid body of evidence to show that merely having the scan in the first place can make your pain worse or persist for longer! This is because unrelated findings that often show up on scans can make people worry more about their pain (see the next point).

2. When people have scans for low back pain the report will almost always show “stuff”. A bit of degeneration here, some wear and tear there, a loss of disc height at this level or a bit of a bulge in a disc or two. But research clearly shows that most of this “stuff” is not actually really related to pain! Extensive research repeatedly shows that people who don’t have low back pain also often have disc bulges, disc degeneration, loss of disc height, facet joint degeneration etc… As a clinician I regularly see situations where a client is being treated for one-sided low back pain yet they bring in scans that they have already had done that show more degenerative findings on the other side. These things are usually just normal parts of the aging process, like getting grey hairs or wrinkles!

So, whilst there ARE times when imaging is indicated and the results ARE helpful when taken in the bigger clinical picture, it is important to remember that most back pains DON’T need imaging. Also,  if you do have a scan then get your physio or doctor to thoroughly explain the results to you because many of the scary-sounding words are actually not relevant.

What Are The Three Types Of Low Back Pain?

Whilst there are several systems around to classify low back pain, the most useful to the general population uses three categories.

1.Non-Specific Low Back Pain: this is by far the most common type of back pain, accounting for approximately 90% of cases. It describes pain that is felt in and around the low back area, and can sometimes extend down in to the legs. The pain can be anything from mild to severe, however there is no numbness, pins-and-needles or muscle weakness. It can be due to structures including joints, discs, muscles and ligaments. There may have been a specific incident to start the pain, eg a heavy lift, or it may just come on for no identifiable reason.

2. Radicular Pain – Commonly Called Sciatica, Nerve Root Pain or a Pinched Nerve: this type accounts for 5-10% of low back pain cases. It occurs when a nerve is compressed as it exits the spine, causing pain running from the back down into the leg. The pain may also be associated with neurological symptoms including numbness, tingling/pins-&-needles, or weakness. Clinical testing of nerve function may show reduced reflexes, power or sensation, and also positive neural tension tests including the straight leg raise (SLR), prone knee bend (PKB) or slump tests. If this nerve compression is present then it is important to begin treatment to relieve the pressure from the nerve as fast as possible. As with non-specific low back pain, radicular back pain can also be either from a specific incident or for no memorable cause.

3. Serious Pathology: this is very rare – less than 1% of low back pain cases are due to serious pathology. It includes things like spinal fractures (broken bones), tumors, and some types of infections and inflammatory conditions. There are specific and effective screening questions and tests that physiotherapists use to identify possible serious pathology and if they are concerned your physio will refer you for further investigation.

Well, that wraps up part one of our series on physiotherapy treatment for low back pain. Next time we look at how physiotherapists treat back pain, and then finally how to reduce your risk of future pain episodes. As always, if you’d like any further information please feel free to contact one of our friendly physio’s at Central Performance!


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