Physical Therapy for Back Injuries

Patients suffering from back pain are not alone. An estimated eight to 10 adults experience this uncomfortable and debilitating condition at some point during their lives. The lower back is the most common site of back injuries, but other patients may experience problems in the mid- or upper-back and the neck.

The back is an intricate structure of bones, muscles, and other tissues extending from neck to pelvis. Back problems can result from sports injuries, work around the house or a sudden jolt such as a car accident.

Back pain can range from a dull, constant ache to a sudden, sharp pain. Acute back pain comes on suddenly and can last up to a few weeks. Back pain is considered chronic if it lasts for more than three months.

Patients with either acute or chronic pain can often be treated by a physical therapist.

A therapist performs a thorough patient evaluation, asking detailed questions about symptoms and reviewing personal health history. Then the therapist may conduct tests to identify problems with posture, flexibility, muscle strength, joint mobility and movement, and investigate symptoms that could indicate a serious health problem, such as a herniated disk, broken bone, or cancer.

A therapist may also assess how patients use their bodies at work, at home, during sports and at leisure.

For most cases, imaging tests such as X-rays, computed tomography (CT) scans, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) doesn’t help diagnose the cause of back pain. However, if the physical therapist suspects that lower back pain might be caused by a health condition, he or she may refer the patient to other health care professionals for evaluation.

With this information, a therapist designs a treatment program to improve or restore mobility and reduce back pain ¬– in many cases without expensive surgery or the side effects of medications.

Not all back pain is the same, so treatment will be tailored to specific symptoms. After the examination, physical therapists identify the factors contributing to specific back problems, and then design an individualized plan, which may include:

  • Manual therapy, including spinal manipulation, to improve the mobility of joints and soft tissues.
  • A routine of strengthening and stretching exercises to keep back, stomach, and leg muscles strong and flexible.
  • Training the patient about proper back-care techniques, such as maintaining proper body alignment, so that it can be more efficient when it moves.
  • Education for proper techniques to lift, bend, and sit; for doing work and home chores; and for proper sleeping positions.
  • Assistance in creating a safe and effective physical activity program
  • Use of ice or heat treatments or electrical stimulation to help relieve pain