In this day and age, we can build electric cars that can drive 400 miles before charging, but chronic back pain still exists for many of us. Why haven't we solved this costly nagging health issue from which nearly 65 million Americans suffer (1)? There is a lot of misinformation still out there focused on how to treat back pain rather than address the root causes. I'll dive into some of the common treatments that are not effective long term, as well as shed light on what can be done for a lasting pain-free life.
Let's face it, at one point or another, most of us have experienced some back pain. Perhaps you get up from sitting after a while, and your back starts aching. Your first thought is, "I should really schedule a massage or go back to my chiropractor for an adjustment; I must be tight and out of alignment." That exact phrase was what I told myself when I had been suffering from chronic back pain for years. I didn't have an acute injury to my spine but had always felt like I lacked control and stability in my low back. I was always active, not overweight, but had this nagging need to crack my back or schedule a massage to work out my trigger points.
At the time, I didn't really understand that what I was doing by going to get a biweekly massage and chiropractor visit wasn't creating lasting change in my body. I felt good while the treatments were going on, but it only lasted till the next day. Soon enough, I went back to experiencing that nagging pain even if I exercised. I was frustrated and frankly spending lots of money on both of these therapeutic methods that were not working long term or creating lasting change.
Massage and Chiropractic Treatments
The term Massage Therapy includes many techniques ranging from eastern to western origins and dates back to thousands of years ago. It is used for healing as well as pain relief (2). Mainly, it's a form of manual therapy where the practitioner can use their hands and other tools to create pressure by rubbing on the client's muscles. Massage adds circulation, reduces pain, lowers anxiety, among other benefits (3). This can be very healing for many people due to the fact that it involves human touch, which can help create a very relaxing experience and reduce stress. But as many of us find out, our muscles soon tighten up just like before. We end up coming back for another massage in an effort to work out the trigger points, as we believe that must be the cause of our pain.
Chiropractic adjustments are a manual form of treatment mainly of the spine in terms of adjusting the alignment of your joints (spinal manipulation) (4). Treatment involves high-velocity low amplitude (HVLA) adjustments that are quick and often painless with the goal to restore the spine to optimal alignment (5). When a joint is being adjusted, and air bubble may be released from the fluid inside the joint capsule and causes the audible cracking sound that many of us are addicted to as we believe we are being reset.
According to chiropractors, adjusting the spine’s many joints is meant to realign our body back to a natural position and reset our muscles, ligaments, and nerves into their proper place for healthy function. Many people swear by these adjustments as the only way they can reduce their back pain. But the catch is they have to keep coming back often to get the same level of relief, just like a massage.
Why Massage And Chiropractic Adjustments Don't Last
The reason these treatments don't last is that we are not changing how we move when we leave the massage or chiropractic office. We go back to how we sit, work, exercise, and move throughout our day. The root cause of back pain is never addressed.
Commonly, the root cause for many of us is a combination of muscle imbalances throughout our kinetic chain that is not addressed with a massage or chiropractic care. We can have both underactive and overactive muscle groups that pull our bodies into positions to create protection around our joints while we move.
The body is very smart and develops recruitment patterns that take time to rewire once in place. Back pain caused by muscle imbalances in the body can occur with postural positions, inactivity, obesity, types of repeated activity like manual labor, improper exercise form, as well as stress (6).
The tight muscles in your back are basically in protection mode signaled from your central nervous system (CNS) to tighten and protect the joints of your spine as well as neighboring joints such as your hips. For example, your low back can become tight and overactive due to weak abdominal muscles not supporting the spine paired with weak glutes, which are meant to support your hips. Remember, pain from overactive muscles in your back is just a signal that you may need to address underactive muscles in the surrounding joints or areas.
How To Fix Back Pain For Good
The only positive I can see with utilizing massage and chiropractic adjustments for these overactive tight back muscles is that both can help these areas temporarily turn down the signal from the CNS to tighten muscles and protect your joints. But this pain-free window only lasts for a small amount of time. During this window, you can perform corrective exercise and mobility while you are feeling less pain.
Corrective exercise and mobility training will help your body add overall balance and usable range of motion to your joints. It's important to find a practitioner or program (MAPS Prime or Prime Pro) that addresses what joints in your body have a muscle imbalance. Once you have this assessment, following a program to add mobility and stability to areas of your body is how you are going to get out of chronic back pain.
I was a prime example of this as my side glute muscles lacked the strength to provide my hips with proper stability and my deep core was not supporting my spine, which led my low back to be overactive and cause pain. Massage or chiropractic care alone wasn't going to give me the stability to my side glutes as I discovered, even though it felt good temporarily.
Once you have the tools of corrective exercise and mobility, you are on your way to feeling better. Everybody is different, and it's important to understand that the way you move is key in living a pain-free life. Mobility and corrective exercise training can be practiced daily, and it will provide lasting results.