Why Physical Therapy Can Help Spine Pain

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You have tried simple measures to relieve your spine problems, like over-the-counter medications, applying heat or ice, and rest. But have you tried physical therapy? If your doctor suggests this very helpful approach for acute or lingering back pain, it’s smart to follow through, according to Praveen Kadimcherla, MD, an orthopedic spine surgeon at Atlantic Spine Center.

Sometimes called physiotherapy, physical therapy is a form of rehabilitation that combines exercises and equipment to help improve function and movement and manage pain. It may also incorporate therapies such as massage, ultrasound, heat, electrical stimulation other non-invasive measures, Dr. Kadimcherla says, and educate you on how to maintain a healthy spine.

Physical therapy is often the best option for spine problems that don’t require or won’t benefit from surgery or other more invasive approaches, he says. It may also be offered along with surgery, injections, or medications to enhance their benefits.

“Most back pain responds to exercises and other treatments done under the guidance of a physical therapist,” explains Dr. Kadimcherla, who is fellowship-trained in orthopedic and spine neurosurgery. “It’s simply one of the best non-surgical approaches to coping with spine problems as they’re happening and preventing new ones, since you finish your regimen of physical therapy stronger than when you started.”

Why PT is better than solo exercise

Regardless of whether your back pain is sudden or chronic, your doctor may steer you toward a physical therapist who can design a personalized course of treatment. But why is this better than doing exercises on your own?

Dr. Kadimcherla says physical therapy boast 3 key advantages to solo exercise:

  • It’s structured: At home, the phone or doorbell rings, your favorite TV show beckons, your spouse calls you away to do a task . . . and you can easily get sidetracked from exercising for the solid hour that would benefit your spine. But at physical therapy (or PT), no such distractions can get in your way, he says.
  • It’s supervised: With a physical therapist overseeing the sometimes-difficult exercises to alleviate your back problems, you’ll be more likely to do them correctly and consistently, Dr. Kadimcherla notes. “Certain exercises can be more painful if they’re not done right,” he adds.
  • It’s educational: “You’ll learn more with professional supervision about the mechanics of your spine and how to keep your back healthy going forward,” Dr. Kadimcherla says. “You can do the exercises you learn long into the future.”

What can you expect?

It might seem a little daunting and mysterious when you first show up for a PT appointment. But fear not: your physical therapist will have a plan tailored to your needs.

“First, they determine what type of back pain they’re dealing with and the reason it’s occurring,” Dr. Kadimcherla explains. “The therapist will also do tests that help decide which types of treatment will tackle your problem most effectively.”

By asking you questions, your physical therapist will find out how your symptoms affect or limit your daily activities. They will also perform a thorough exam that checks your posture and range of motion, as well as conduct nerve tests and feel soft tissues around your spine for tender points or other red flags.

A course of physical therapy often lasts several weeks to several months, depending on your needs. But in that period, you will likely notice dramatic improvements in your pain and ability to move freely, Dr. Kadimcherla says.

“Physical therapy works for the widest range of patients with spine problems that I treat,” Dr. Kadimcherla says. “It’s a clear standout in effective approaches to back pain.”