Top 5 Back Pain Myths Everybody over 40 should know
Are you 40 or older? Are you suffering needlessly from back pain? Sciatica? Often, many, when they’re going to their doctor, trainer, or friend are told things about their back that are not only wrong but often unknowingly keep them in pain for far longer than they need to. In this post, we’ll cover 5 of the most common myths about back pain and sciatica that we hear in our Physiotherapy clinic in Tallahassee and cover what is actually happening when dealing with back pain.
Myth #1: I hurt because I have that disease, “degenerative disc disease”. Of all the words used to teach and explain about back pain, this myth has to be the worst. Before we go too much further, let’s explain what Degenerative disc disease really is and then we’ll dive into why it’s Myth #1. First, what we once thought was degeneration of the disc in degenerative disc disease or DDD, we now know is neither degeneration nor a progressing disease process. What do I mean by that? Well, when physicians first started using MRIs for back pain, they started noticing that some people had these changes to their spine. They also noticed that some people had more changes than others. In many cases, this was in people that came in for an MRI for their back pain. These changes were often where the disc was a bit smaller than the radiologist was expecting or the bones of the spine were closer together. Doctors being doctors, they wanted to name it and so degenerative disc disease was born. Now, why is DDD a pain myth? Well, its found in people who have absolutely zero pain. In fact, degenerative disc disease in people with no pain is found in 68% of 40 year olds, 80% of 50 year olds, and 88% of 60 year olds. What we now understand about degenerative disc disease is that it is more of just how our spines naturally age and isn’t the cause of back pain for most people. Need personalized answers to your back pain? Speak with a back pain specialist
Myth #2 I hurt because I have a bulging disc. Many people with back pain are told after a scan that they have a bulging or herniated disc. So, what is going on there? In between the bones of our back is cartilage, similar to between the rest of our joints. This cartilage has fluid in it. The fluid in the disc can increase or decrease based on several different things. It will have 20% more fluid in the morning than the afternoon, if you have the flu, your disc can become swollen, and as the day goes on, it will lose fluid(and you likely slouch more). But, just like degenerative disc disease, MRIs find bulging discs in people without any pain whatsoever. In fact, 50% of 40 year olds without pain have a disc bulge while 60% of 50 year olds and 68% of 60 year olds have bulging discs and no pain.
What’s the difference between a herniated disc and a bulging disc? Have you ever sprained your ankle or seen one? Its swollen, hot, sensitive, and purpose. We know that a disc can also be injured and when it is, it does the same thing. There’s some bleeding, inflammation, and swelling. Sometimes some extra fluid can be seen on an MRI and we call that a herniated disc. What’s often not said is that herniated discs heal on their own(and can be helped along by the right kind of stretches). In fact, if you happened to have herniated your disc today, in 3 months it will be 50% healed, by 6 months 75% and at a year, 100% healed(though you may still have pain-but that’s a different article).
Myth #3: Slipped vertebra or slipped disc. This is a tougher myth because it feels like it makes sense, when I have back pain, it feels like something is out of place or has slipped. So, when you’ve been told you have a slipped disc, what does it really mean? What it implies is that one disc has shifted in relation to the bones above and below. One of the things we now know about the spine is that it has a very strong support system around it. Having done cadaver dissections myself, it is super hard to “slip a disc” even with a scalpel. In fact, it often takes a major accident to cause any movement that is out of the ordinary to the spine. And, when people have a scan who have back pain, they find that the spine hasn’t moved out of place while in many high level athletes, they’ll have a shifted spine but no pain and performing at the top level. This doesn’t change the fact thot something feels like it has moved. Often when a health care provider says this, they are more likely trying to explain a bulging disc. Why does this matter? It means that you often don’t need somebody else to “fix” you over and over again or “put something back in place”. Often a bit of moving in the right direction can ease stiff achy backs and give you control over it.
Myth #4: I hurt because my spine has a curve (or I hurt because my curve is gone). When viewed from the side, our spines have a natural S-curve. This is normal and lets the spine move and carry heavy loads. These curves, however, are not set and change as we move. When we bend to tie our shoes, the curve flattens while when we stretch overhead it increases. So, why does the X-ray find the missing(or massive) curve? When we have back pain, muscles tighten up to protect the painful area, often called a spasm, which changes these curves. It may pull us to one side(like scoliosis), or it may flatten our back(loss of curve). By the way, scoliosis is more a curve of your upper back, not your lower back and is quite common with many people having a small curve. In addition, most scoliosis curves happen early in life and by our 20’s it stops curving. Have a concern I haven’t covered? Pick a time to speak with one of our back pain specialists, from the comfort of your own couch and for free.
Myth #5: Does my back hurt because I have a weak core? This or statements like “my back is weak and needs protection” or “I hurt because I didn’t lift with my legs” or “I shouldn’t pick things up”. In the last few years, a lot of attention has been focused on the core. What is the core? It refers to the deeper muscles in your abs and low back. It is believed that these muscles protect the spine and when they don’t work(weak core) there is back pain. But, did you know that core exercises have never been shown to help back pain? Often they're trained like your biceps or pecs when exercises really need to be focusing on getting them to work in the right sequence. Often people with back pain will feel like they’re weak but the reality is that the body often limits what you can do by creating the feeling of weakness in order to try to protect you(keep you from overdoing it). The good news is that with the right kind of stretches, the feeling of strength comes right back(without crunches or planks).
Confused about where to start? We got you covered! That’s why we offer free consultations to help you get to the root of why you are dealing with stiffness, pain, or just not performing the way you need to.
During one of our free consultations, the Total Body Diagnostic, we offer expert advice about the worry and frustration of life-changing aches and pains – for FREE, in under 30 minutes.
If this article describes your story and you are looking for some help with overcoming hip pain, we offer FREE consultations, which give you the opportunity to come in and meet us and see for yourself how we can help you.
Here are just a few of the things you will learn in one of our free consultation:
What is the underlying cause of your pain? (hopefully nothing too serious!)
Roughly, how long will it take to fix the problem?
What to do to help – which doesn’t include painkillers, resting or surgery etc.
What other, natural, drug free methods are there to speed up recovery alongside treatment?
Our consultations are great for anyone that may be “unsure” if physio is right for them, and they give you the opportunity to ask questions and see for yourself if we can help you.
If you’d like one of our limited free consultation sessions, please click here to request your free in person back pain specialist consultation or CALL us on 850-765-2779 to make a no-obligation enquiry.
About the Author
Dr. Brandon Alkire, DPT, CSCS, FMS, Cert. DN, Doctor of Physical Therapy and Strength Coach Dr. Brandon is the owner and a Physio at Body Mechanix Physiotherapy and Fitness. Four of his favorite people call him daddy while he's been married to his other favorite person for 20 years. He enjoys teaching martial arts and is a Mestrando in Capoeira while in the mornings, he can be found working out with the guys in F3 around town. He's the author of 4 pain relief guides for sciatica, low back, shoulder, and knees and the lead contributor to the Active Tallahassee Blog.