Persistent Low Back Pain: The Physical Therapist’s Role

Low back pain is the most common cause of disability and lost work time in industrialized countries.   Persistent low back pain is characterized by periods of high and low pain intensity which can persist for years.  Periodic “flare- ups” are common and often result in the seeking of medical treatment.  Medications and surgery are often ineffective and may be harmful in some situations.  Physical therapy is a non-invasive treatment approach which is often considered in those with persistent low back pain.  However, improvements are often short-term for those with longstanding pain.  Similar to surgery and medications, the long-term success of physical therapy treatments for chronic back pain is questionable.

Traditional approaches utilizing physical therapy involve a short, but intense course of treatment such as 12 visits over a 4 to 8 week period.  However, this type of treatment approach is likely insufficient to positively influence a person’s beliefs and behaviors about their pain.  Changing these beliefs and behaviors are crucial if an individual with persistent pain is to self-manage through physical activity and lifestyle changes.

Persistent Low Back Pain is Complex

When pain persists beyond expected time frames, changes occur within our nervous system.  These changes include abnormal pain processing pathways and poor execution of movement patterns.  Because the nervous system is so complex, individual “pain experiences” vary greatly among those with persistent low back pain.  Diagnostic tests and scans, including MRI, are of little help because the primary problem is in the nervous system, not the low back.

The low back muscles of those with persistent pain undergo substantial changes over time.  This is believed to be caused by changes in the central nervous system.  These changes include atrophy (loss of muscle) and deposits of fatty tissue in the place of the lost muscle.  In particular the lumbar multifidus muscle has been shown to be selectively atrophied in many, but not all, individuals with persistent back pain.  Not only does the structure of muscle change with long-standing pain, but so does the nervous system’s ability to activate certain muscles.  Some muscles may become underactive while others become overactive.  These patterns differ among individuals with back pain making symptoms highly variable.   A common strategy is when many muscles of the low back contract simultaneously resulting in an unhelpful stiffening or bracing of the trunk.

Persistent Low Back Pain & Exercise

Altered pain processing pathways in the nervous system and changes in the back muscles leads to difficulty learning low back exercises.  A long term stimulus is likely needed to overcome atrophy of spinal muscles and to regain proper muscle function.  Performing low back exercise several times per week for 1 to 2 months is not adequate dosage.  Therefore, those with persistent pain may require repeated practice for several months in order to master the most basic of exercises.

In order to restore normal movement patterns exercise prescription must be matched to the individual’s beliefs and functional problems.  Ongoing types of cognitive interventions, such as education about the science of pain are beneficial to facilitate participation in exercise and physical activity.  An emphasis on education and a gradual progression of physical activity then becomes the long-term treatment.

The Role of the Physical Therapist in Helping Those with Persistent Low Back Pain

A recent episode of low back pain often responds well to manual therapy treatments such as mobilization, manipulation, or massage.  Sometimes, ice or hot packs can be helpful in these situations. However, passive interventions are of little help for those with persistent pain.  Instead, treatments that effectively involve the patient in long-term performance of physical activity are likely to be most valuable. These approaches seek to empower the patient by emphasizing their own preferred types of physical activities which can be progressed and modified as needed over time by the physical therapist.

There is no one-size fits all approach to prescribing exercise for those with persistent low back pain.  Core stabilization exercise receives a great deal of attention but this form of treatment is only helpful in some.  The same goes for stretching, resistance exercise, and aerobic exercise.  All these forms of exercise can be helpful in some but not all.  Therefore, the physical therapist and the patient should collaborate to develop an exercise plan which the patient finds enjoyable or preferable.  This is the only way the program will be adhered to for the long-term.

Final Thoughts on Physical Therapy for Persistent Low Back Pain

The traditional approach of attending physical therapy sessions 2 to 3 times a week for 4 to 8 weeks is not optimal.  Instead, the physical therapist and patient should seek to develop a long-term working relationship over time.  Initially, physical therapy sessions may occur multiple times a week but only for a few weeks.  Sessions should then be spaced out over time.  The physical therapist can assist the patient in progressing or modifying their exercise program at each session.

The physical therapists primary role is as a coach or guide who empowers the individual to self-manage for the long-term.   The ultimate goal is for the individual to manage and be prepared for fluctuations in their back pain.  Those with persistent back pain are ideally suited to directly access the services of a physical therapist without a physician referral.  In these instances, sessions are best when spaced out every few months or as needed.

Exercise is Medicine for Depression

Depression can be a short-term state or a long-term clinical disorder.  Depression as a transient mood state is characterized by feeling sad, discouraged, or unhappy. These feelings generally resolve over the course of a few days or less.  Depression as a clinical condition is a psychiatric disorder where certain diagnostic criteria must be met.  The diagnosis of major depressive disorder requires psychiatric evaluation by a qualified professional. The diagnosis typically includes at least several of the following: weight loss, sleep disturbance, agitation, fatigue or loss of energy, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, diminished concentration, and possibly recurrent thoughts of death.  Major depressive disorder is distinguished from transient feelings of depression by both the severity and duration of symptoms.

It is estimated that one in five adults will suffer from major depressive disorder at some point in their life.  The incidence is higher in women.  One in four adolescents suffers from depression and this increases the risk of depression later in life.   Depression has also been linked to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.  All of these disorders, including depression, are on the rise in the United States.   These disorders are also commonplace in outpatient physical therapy clinics where individuals are recovering from injuries.  Perhaps, the knowledge and positive habits learned in physical therapy can assist those with symptoms of depression and chronic disease.  Follow-through with a long-term exercise program can produce meaningful changes in mood, physical health, and quality of life.   All of these benefits can be achieved without the adverse effects associated with other forms of treatment.

Conventional Treatments for Depression

Antidepressant medication is the staple treatment for symptoms of depression.  Approximately half of individuals with depression will respond favorably to prescription medications without side effects.  The other half will either not respond to treatment or suffer side effects from the medications such as constipation, sleep loss, blurred vision, weight gain, fatigue, nausea, and sexual dysfunction.

Treatment may involve individual or group counseling lasting several months. Psychotherapy has been shown to be an effective long-term treatment for depression.  This form of treatment is often used in conjunction with antidepressant medication for individuals with more severe depression.   Cognitive behavioral therapy is one form of psychotherapy which aims to identify and change negative thoughts in those with depression.

Exercise as a Treatment for Depression

As a stand-alone treatment, exercise has been shown to result in moderate to large improvements in depressive symptoms.  Research has also shown no difference in outcomes when comparing exercise to cognitive behavioral therapy.  When combining the results from four studies, no differences were found between the effects of exercise and antidepressant medication.  This is not to suggest that medication and psychotherapy are ineffective.  Instead, exercise may enhance the effects of these conventional treatments for depression.  And perhaps, exercise may even be able to replace them over time.

Type and Dose of Exercise to Manage Depression

Most studies showing positive effects with exercise have included some form of aerobic exercise.  Walking, jogging, and cycling are the most commonly utilized forms of aerobic exercise.  The optimal frequency of exercise has not been determined but most studies have included exercising 3-5 times per week.  Programs with higher energy expenditures have been shown to produce greater results but positive effects can be achieved with lower intensity programs. A good starting point is to perform short walks 3 days per week.   As aerobic capacity and confidence improve, exercise should be progressed based on the American College of Sports Medicine recommendations of moderate intensity exercise performed for at least 30 minutes 5 days per week.  As aerobic capacity improves, exercise intensity and duration should be progressed in order to continue to make gains.

Tips to Increase Chances of Success

The first challenge with any exercise program is simply taking the first step.  Starting small and gradually building up the intensity, duration, and frequency is a wise approach.  Expect minor setbacks along the way and do not be discouraged when they occur.  The antidepressant effects of exercise takes time.  Be patient.   Once you begin to notice small progress in your exercise capacity and overall well-being, momentum will start to build.  The key to long-term adherence is to stay disciplined and develop habits for a lifetime.  Below are a few tips to help you on your journey.

  • Pick a form of exercise you enjoy and stick with it
  • Invest in a good pair of sneakers to exercise in
  • Pick a time of day to exercise which works best for you and make this part of your daily routine
  • Set your own goals and track your progress
  • Anticipate barriers (fatigue, work duties, bad weather, etc) and develop solutions ahead of time
  • Team up with a partner or partners and you will be more likely to stick with it
  • Do not be discouraged if you miss one session. If you fall off, get right back on the next day.
  • Take a minute and appreciate how you feel at the end of each exercise session

Let us know if you need help getting started and best of luck!

References

  1. Blumenthal JA, Smith PJ, Hoffman BM. Is exercise a viable treatment for depression? ACSMs Heal Fit J. 2012;16(4):14-21. doi:10.1249/01.FIT.0000416000.09526.eb.Is.
  2. Cooney G, Dwan K, Greig C, et al. Exercise for depression (Review). Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013;9:1-125. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD004366.pub6.www.cochranelibrary.com.

Finished Your Physical Therapy: What’s Next?

The day has come.  You’ve dedicated your time and put in the work now you and your physical therapist have decided you’re ready for discharge.  So what happens after you have completed physical therapy?

Some patients leave physical therapy feeling 100% and return to their regular active lifestyle and prior fitness routine.  In many cases, though the patients we see are ones that do not live an active lifestyle and have no prior fitness routine. Some patients may only feel 80% better and insurance benefits or financial limitations will not allow continued care. These patients, in particular, are the ones who may leave therapy feeling uneasy or unsure.  They may have many questions they are asking themselves:

  • What if I never feel 100%?
  • When will I find time to continue the home exercises on my own?
  • How long will I have to continue these exercises for?
  • What if the exercises feel like they aren’t helping me anymore?
  • Will I be disciplined enough to do them?
  • What if the pain starts to come back?
  • What if I stop doing the exercises?

Exercise After Physical Therapy

Chances are if you are asking yourself any of these questions, you may be someone who requires or would benefit from more guidance moving forward.  Ideally, you would benefit from a long-term fitness routine or group exercise program.  If you are someone who did not exercise regularly prior to staring physical therapy there is a good chance that you will not continue to do the exercise once you are done.  The intentions may be good but many people do fall short.  Some people are disciplined self-motivators but many are not.  Also, it is easy enough to say “I can’t find the time” or “life just got in the way”.   Anyone at anytime can find the excuse as to why they haven’t been able to continue with a routine.

Building Healthy Habits

Most of the time patients attend physical therapy for 2 or 3 visits a week for a few weeks, most commonly between 4 and 8 weeks.  Research says it can take 2 months or more (66 days on average) to form a new habit.  It takes repetition for the new behavior pattern to become imprinted in your neural pathways. In fact, research by Kaushal and Rhodes suggests it takes at least 4 gym sessions per week for 6 weeks to establish an exercise habit. That doesn’t mean you can’t develop an exercise habit by going less frequently; it just means it will probably take longer for it to become automatic.

If you have already been attending physical therapy 2-3 times per week DO NOT stop dedicating that time to yourself when you are done. DO NOT take a week off and decide to figure out the next step later. DO NOT lose your momentum! If you know that you are someone who needs that continued guidance and motivation ask your physical therapist to help you find the right exercise program to start with.  Depending on your fitness level, behavior characteristics and health goals there will be options that are better for some than others.  Fitness is a booming business right now and there are plenty of options out there.  Some people don’t know where to start.  Your physical therapist will have a general knowledge of what types of exercises are done at different fitness facilities, however, depending on where you live these places vary.

Local Recommendations

The physical therapists at BSR Physical Therapy have been doing the research locally here in the Manahawkin, NJ area.  We are helping to build a library of long-term fitness options for our patients.  We want you to succeed in your health goals.

Most recently Dr. Amanda Higgins, Morgan Gamble and I attended a barre class at Black Sheep Studios on LBI.  The fitness studio had a welcoming earthy vibe.  We met with one of the owners Devon who was as personable as they come and full of energy.  It only took one class to know that this is a place where you won’t get lost in the numbers as the class sizes are small and intimate and everyone called everyone else by name.  The instructors paid close attention to form and corrective technique which is a must to get the recommendation from a physical therapist.  Their instructor Wendy provides individualized programs for people with the use of pilates transformers which is a hard find in this area.  They also provide a menu of other unique exercise classes that may be the perfect fit for some of you.

This place is one of many that can help you stay on track.  We want to see you succeed with your health and fitness long term.  Let us help you transition from physical therapy to fitness.

-Dr. Amy McMahon

 

Resilience: The Final Piece of Recovery from Injury

Resilience is the ability to recover from or adjust to misfortune or change.   Successful recovery from injury requires resilience to overcome physical and psychological challenges.  There will always be times during rehabilitation when things seem to never go as planned.  This could be a set back where pain or swelling increases temporarily for unexplained reasons.  During these situations, it can be easy to look for excuses or a quick fix solution.  However, the true solution often lies within us in the form of resiliency.

Developing Resilience

Physical therapists, trainers, or coaches can assist by instilling a sense of resiliency within their patients or clients.  This begins by developing trust and truly understanding what the end goal is.  Understanding the desired outcome and feeling prepared for when adversity strikes is a crucial step towards building resilience.  Attempting to motivate or push individuals is rarely successful under conditions of adversity.  Parents who continuously push their child in sports often undermine resilience and contribute to burnout.  The same often occurs during rehabilitation when healthcare providers fail to collaborate and problem solve with their patients.

Resilience and Mindset

Patients and athletes recovering from an injury often expect the worst.  This mindset is extremely detrimental to recovery.  In order to handle adversity and the challenges of rehabilitation, it is important to put in good old-fashioned hard work.  This work must be purposeful, intense, and practiced repeatedly in order to build resilience.  Those who commit to putting in the work build resilience and begin to expect success.  Those who fail to put in the work often expect the next set back and feel helpless about it.  Ultimately, we become what we continuously think about.  Expecting a set back with a sense of helplessness will nearly always lead to failure.

Resilience from Michael Jordan

Putting in the Work & Mental Toughness

Following through with a rehabilitation program at 100% is an example of putting in the work.  This contributes to developing resilience through physical means such as building a foundation of strength and optimizing movement patterns.  Putting in the work also develops resilience through mental toughness.  When injury or adversity ensues, some look for passive solutions while others dig deep into their mental toughness and work to make things right.   These are life skills and personal traits which go beyond rehabilitation or sport.

Conclusion

Successful recovery from injury requires resilience.  Resilience requires purpose, goals, hard work, repetition, and mental toughness.  Developing a trusting and collaborative relationship with your physical therapist will better prepare you for when adversity strikes.   When adversity does appear, the solution is often found within.   The resilient individual will adapt and overcome.  When things are not going well during rehabilitation, take back control and get yourself back on track.