Treating back pain is not always an easy thing to do. It is estimated that as many as 80% of the population will experience lower back pain at some point in their lifetime. The financial toll is somewhere around 50 billion dollars a year; meaning that those who look for relief end up paying quite a lot.
According to a study recently released by Harvard University, one of the best methods of physical therapy for lower back pain might surprise you.
The Harvard School of medicine recently published results in the Annals of Internal Medicine that concluded that physical therapy, for certain lumbar spinal conditions, is far more successful than surgery. Also, physical therapy comes with more instant results, no downtime, and no complications.
What is lumbar spinal stenosis?
Stenosis of the lumbar spine is when there is a narrowing of the space of the spinal canal. When the canal narrows, it presses against the nerves and the spinal cord that come from the lumbar vertebra. Five bones are between the pelvis and the rib cage, and they make up the lower part of the spine.
Spinal stenosis is a condition that arises from degeneration of the ligaments, discs, or other joints that interlock either facet joints or the vertebrae that comprise the spine. When there is narrowing, it can lead to immense pain that can lessen mobility.
The symptoms of spinal stenosis
- The symptoms of spinal stenosis can range in severity from mild to extreme. It can result in pain:
- In the upper thigh that radiates down the leg
- In the buttocks and groin
- That increases when you walk or when you are standing, but it feels better when you squat or sit down
- That decreases when you lean forward and gets worse when your body leans back
What is the surgical procedure used to alleviate spinal stenosis
Laminectomy or decompression is the standard surgical procedure for spinal stenosis, and it is used to alleviate the symptoms that are associated with it. It seeks to remove any structures that are pressing on the nerves; but, what the study done by Harvard concluded was that physical therapy might be a better option for alleviating the pain of spinal stenosis.
The study looked at 169 men and women who suffer from lower spinal stenosis. Although they all agreed to have the surgery, only half of them were assigned to the surgery group. The other half participated in a physical therapy program and did not receive surgery.
The participants in both groups noticed a significant benefit after ten weeks (after extensive physical therapy or recovering from surgery). The pain in the lower back declined for as many as four months and the physical function of the participants in both groups, likewise, increased.
After two years, there was virtually no difference in the pain of the group who had gone through surgery and those who had been in the group that received only physical therapy.
Twenty-five percent of those who were in the surgical group experienced complications related to their surgery and subsequently needed additional surgery or had a surgical infection. Only ten percent of those who had physical therapy indicated that their symptoms had gotten worse.
When you have back surgery of any kind, it comes with inherent risks of complications. Physical therapy, since it is non-invasive, comes with very few risks. Since nerves pressing on the spine causes spinal stenosis, if you support and foster the strength of the muscles surrounding it, then it helps to alleviate the pressure on both the nerves and the spinal column without having to go through surgery or the recovery from it.
What the Harvard study suggests is that before anyone goes through surgery for spinal stenosis, a reasonable treatment plan would first be to go through physical therapy and see how much improvement there is.
If that doesn’t work, or if the damage is extensive enough, then other surgical options might be visited. But, if you can get the same benefit from physical therapy that you do with surgery, then it seems like a good idea to delay surgical options for as long as you can.