What should you avoid if you have back pain?


  1. “ Low back pain (LBP) is though to occur in almost 80% of adults at some point in their lives”


This is an article from the 1980’s. It’s been over 20 years since this article was written and these statistics still hold true over time. As much as we have advanced technologically, it doesn’t really seem to be helping the prevalence of back pain. I’ve seen in places where this is called the common cold of musculoskeletal issues because it will affect so many people over the course of a lifetime.


  1. “…back problems are the most frequent cause of limitation of activity (work, housekeeping, or school) in persons younger than 45 years.”


This is a problem. If I have to take time off of work because of back pain, then there is less food on my table. I’m sure that this holds true for many of those reading this blog. We have to do better. Back pain doesn’t have to disable a person. We need to do a better job of educating the public regarding back pain. There was a recent article that notes that people should try drug-free options first for low back pain. PT is one of those “drug-free” options.


Every day about 1,000 people are treated in the emergency department for misuse of opioids. About 40 people per day die of opioid overdose. These numbers are staggering! It doesn’t have to be so.


stats on opioids


  1. “Only routine examination, postoperative checkups, and upper respiratory tract symptoms surpass back problems as a cause of office visits to physicians.”


This may have changed in the past 20 years. I read recently that back pain accounts for more visits than all other issues except for respiratory tract symptoms (i.e. the common cold). This is a lot of people with back problems. Not many patients are referred to PT. There is an article that reports about 7% of patients seek out PT. When they do get referred, not all PT’s practice with the same treatment parameters. Do your research as to what clinic you are attending, because they are not all the same in regards to cost and effectiveness.


  1. “A variety of exercise regimens for LBP has been advocated. The three most commonly recommended regimens are (1_ hyperextension exercises to strength paravertebral muscles; (2) general “mobilizing exercises” to improve overall spinal range of motion; and (3) isometric flexion exercises designed to strengthen both abdominal and lumbar muscles, creating a “corset of muscles.”


Lots has changed in the research, but unfortunately not a lot has changed in practice from my point of view. I still see the same “core stability” training done on many patients even though the research doesn’t support one type of “core training” over another. There have been more interventions added to the research and application, such as thrust manipulations, directional preference based exercises, cognitive behavioral therapy and others just to name a few.


  1. “Several trials shoed no advantage of traction over alternative treatments, but statistical power was not reported.”


This article is over 20 years old! The advice at that time is similar to the current stance based on the research. The problem with this is that there are still many therapists using traction. Saying this differently, there are still some therapists that frequently use traction. This could only be for one of two reasons:

  1. Ignorance. As much as I would love to say that all therapists are reading journal articles at home, we know that this is not the case. Based on some research, there are therapists that don’t even know how to find the research and if they can find it, they won’t take the time out of their day to read it. This is a problem because it is our profession. I never stop wearing the hat of physical therapist, in the same light as I never stop wearing the hat of husband and father.
  2. Greed. A therapist doesn’t need to spend much time with the patient while they are on traction. Traction is paid whether the therapist is by your side or not. In this fashion, the therapist can spend time with another patient and charge that other patient for his/her time while the therapist is charging you for traction.


Don’t get me wrong; there are cases in which to use traction. When it is the last viable option to try to get a patient better or to keep the patient from an unwanted surgery. In other words, it is used as a last case scenario. You can see a previous post on traction if you are interested.


  1. “For these reasons, its (bed rest) value for patients with typical findings of a herniated disk is not disputed…Thus, there is suggestive evidence for the efficacy of strict bed rest for some patients without sciatica…”


Wholly Moley! This has changed dramatically. Bed rest is rarely recommended for anything. The repercussions of spending hours to days in bed far outweigh standing with benign low back pain. This article summarizes the negative effects.


  1. “Spinal manipulation remains highly controversial, partly because in the United States it is often equated with the practice of chiropractic.”


Physical Therapists are able to manipulate the spine and other areas of the body. No one profession owns this treatment. Chiropractors have done a much better job of educating the public about the treatments that they perform. Don’t be surprised if your therapist wants to perform a manipulation. Lot’s has changed in 20 years.


  1. “This study did serve to demonstrate that placebo effects with a nonfunctioning stimulator are common”


This is interesting that the thought of TENS (a form of treatment in which pads are placed on a specific body part and an electrical current is introduced throughout the pads in order to reduce pain) 20 years ago was that it could also be the placebo effect that is creating the change. Patients seem to like it in the short-term, but there is major controversy over this intervention. So much so that medicare questions its effectiveness for back pain.


  1. “The use of corsets, TNS (TENS), and conventional traction are not yet supported by any rigorous trials.”


This was stated 20 years ago! I believe that if you walked into any physical therapy clinic that you would still see these interventions applied to the patient…because insurance companies continue to pay for them. Although there is much research to indicate that these interventions have little to no place in therapy, many times their use is due to the two reasons given above. If you are in a place in which these are the treatments that take up a majority of your sessions, question your therapists. This is the advice given by the professional organization of physical therapists, the APTA.


Excerpts taken from:


Deyo R. Conservative Therapy for Low Back Pain: Distinguishing Useful From Useless Therapy. JAMA. 1983;250(8):1057-1062.


Traction: useful or not?

I use traction sparingly. It is a last resort if the patient is going to have a surgery. If I have tried everything in my power and knowledge to help a patient, and the patient continues to not improve, then traction it is. It is my Hail Mary.

  1. “Physical therapists may choose from myriad intervention options for LBP, but the effectivenss of many of these options is questionable”

Do you feel good about coming to therapy yet? An awesome question to ask your therapists is; “What does the research say about xyz?” or better yet “Does the research support xyz for my condition?”

It’s funny, in school we all learn that ultrasound brings more blood flow to an area…SO FRIGGIN WHAT? Does that blood flow actually fix me? Not really, but it brings more blood flow! That’s an expensive transportation of blood. Do you know what else brings more blood flow…Hickies. That brings more blood flow. Ask your therapists to suck on your skin for a while to see if that will also bring more blood flow. It will probably cost you a little more for that service though…I digress. There is not much, if any, CURRENT research that supports the use of ultrasound for back pain. If your therapist tells you that ultrasound will help, ask how? If they tell you the blood flow thing…ask them to pucker up.

  1. “Authorities have recommended traction for conditions including protruding Intervertebral discs, spinal muscle spasm, and general pain and stiffness”

This is what I learned when I was in school. Seems archaic that we were taking general recommendations from “authorities” to try to fix the second largest complaint to the common cold. At least research has advanced from the opinion of authorities.

  1. “several systematic reviews and clinical guidelines conclude that the effectiveness of traction is limited…little evidence to recommend traction…clinically important benefits of lumbar traction were demonstrated for neither acute nor chronic back LBP…traction should not be used…41% of the physical therapists in the UK used traction”

Boy can those statements be any stronger. Traction should not be used because it is not very effective for low back pain (LBP). Now if you want to use traction because it makes you feel better, then go ahead. Sugar pills work for some people also. (Not trying to come across as sarcastic, but I’m sure it sounds that way). If you have preference for a specific intervention, then that intervention may be likely to help you. I have a patient that believes that ultrasound of the back muscles helps. No matter how much education I have provided, I’d be better off talking to the wall. Needless to say, we have a great conversation during the ultrasound, while the patient is propped up on his elbows and lying on his belly. For those that know, these positions can help/fix up to 65% of back pain patients.

  1. “Our findings suggest that a majority of APTA Orthopaedic Section members use traction…In contrast, approximately one third of respondents indicated that they would use tractions for patients in a manner that is contrary to that classification”

There is a clinical prediction rule in the derivation (creation) phase that indicates a certain type of patient may benefit from traction. This is less than 10% of the patients in the clinic. This rule has not been replicated yet, so it is more like an educated guess at this point. Other research has reported the above, in which traction has no added benefit to an exercise program. Also, exercise increases blood flow (see above). The sad part is that about 1 in 3 therapists are using traction contrary to how it should be used. Have you seen that therapist? They are typically the ones applying hot packs, Hickies and massage.

  1. “employing soft tissue mobilization or massage was identified by approximately 65% of our respondents as a supplement to traction. Given limited evidence for the effectiveness of massage for treating LBP…the extent to which physical therapists in the United States use soft tissue mobilizations/massage in managing LBP may be concerning”

WOW! I was totally talking out of my a$$ in the above paragraph, but my a$$ is also supported by research. Who knew?

  1. “there is a growing body of evidence that higher levels of professional preparation influence clinical decision making and, potentially, patient outcomes”

Look there has been a backlash in our profession for what is called “alphabet soup” after our names. This means that some therapists have gone on for “extra” training and certifications. This is important. Unfortunately, our profession has deemed it inappropriate to put down all of the certifications after our name. The only way to know what your therapist knows is to ask. I personally have the initials:

DPT (Doctor of Physical Therapy), cert. MDT (certified in Mechanical Diagnosis and Therapy). None of the above initials were given to me…I earned them.

Thanks for reading this. If I go overboard at times and offend you, there are other blogs to read. Have a good night.

Quotes taken from:

Madson TJ, Hollman JH. Lumbar Traction for Managing Low Back Pain: A survey of Physical Therapists in the United States. J Orthop Phys Ther. 2015;45(8):586-595.