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Wave Goodbye to Pain: The Benefits of Physical Therapy For Back Pain You Need to Know 


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Back pain is one of the most common reasons that people visit a doctor or miss days of work. It is estimated that up to 80% of Americans will experience back pain at some point in their lives. The pain can range from mild to severe and debilitating. While there are many potential causes, the most common causes are sprains and strains of muscles, ligaments, and discs in the spine. 


When back pain occurs, many people simply take pain medication and try to wait it out. However, this does not treat the underlying cause of the pain. That's where physical therapy can help. Physical therapy is a treatment approach that focuses on the health of the spine and other muscles and joints to reduce pain and improve mobility. Physical therapists use a variety of techniques like exercises, manual therapy, and more to help strengthen muscles, improve flexibility, and get patients moving better. 


Physical therapy is often recommended by doctors as part of a treatment plan for back pain. Research shows it can be very effective at providing long-lasting relief and preventing future injuries. This article will explore the benefits of physical therapy for back pain in depth. 


Causes of Back Pain 


an illustration of a spine

Back pain can originate from a variety of sources. Some common causes include: 


  • Injuries - Injuries such as muscle strains or ligament sprains can cause acute back pain. Improper lifting, sudden movements, falls, and accidents are common ways people injure their backs. Sporting activities like football, soccer, gymnastics, and weightlifting also commonly lead to back injuries.    

  • Arthritis - Osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are degenerative diseases that damage the spine's vertebrae, discs, and joints over time. This leads to stiffness, reduced mobility, bone spurs, and chronic pain.    

  • Poor posture - Bad posture strains the back by putting extra pressure on muscles and discs. Sitting hunched over a computer or looking down at phones constantly can contribute to poor posture. Weak back and core muscles also make it hard to maintain proper posture.    

  • Spinal abnormalities - Issues like scoliosis, kyphosis, and spondylolisthesis cause the spine to curve or shift out of alignment. This leads to added pressure on vertebrae and discs.    

  • Obesity - Excess weight, especially concentrated around the abdomen, strains the lower back. This extra load causes pain and pressure on the spine.    

  • Smoking - Smoking impedes blood flow and oxygen delivery to discs. This accelerates disc degeneration and increases back pain risk. 

Goals of Physical Therapy for Back Pain


  • Physical therapy aims to provide long-lasting relief for back pain through various treatment techniques and exercises. The main goals of physical therapy for back pain are: 

  • Relieve pain - Physical therapists use a combination of hands-on techniques, equipment, and exercises to reduce inflammation, improve blood flow, and alleviate muscle tightness or spasms. This helps decrease pain levels and discomfort.    

  • Improve mobility - Restricted movement and flexibility is common with back injuries. Stretches, strengthen exercises, and techniques like joint mobilization can improve range of motion and restore normal movement patterns.    

  • Correct posture - Poor posture stresses the back and can lead to pain. Physical therapists correct posture problems through education, exercise, bracing, and body mechanics training. This reduces strain on the spine.    

  • Prevent re-injury - Learning proper lifting and movement mechanics, building core strength, and increasing flexibility helps prevent reinjuring the back. Therapists provide tips and exercises for maintaining a strong, healthy back long-term. 


The goal is to resolve the underlying issues causing back pain, rather than just treating the symptoms. This allows patients to become independent in managing their condition and avoiding future aggravations. 


Physical Therapy Techniques   

a physical therapist stretching out a patient

Physical therapists use a variety of techniques to help relieve back pain and prevent future injuries. Some of the most common techniques include: 


Exercises to Strengthen Core and Back Muscles 


Specific exercises can help strengthen the muscles that support the back and improve posture and alignment. Common exercises prescribed by physical therapists include: 


  • Core strengthening exercises like planks, bridges, and abdominal crunches to stabilize the spine 

  • Back extensions and rowing motions that target the back extensor muscles 

  • Stretches like cat-cow pose to increase flexibility of the spine 


Building core and back muscle strength provides stability, takes pressure off the spine, and prevents muscle imbalances. 


Stretches and Flexibility Training 


Limited flexibility and tight muscles are common causes of back pain. Physical therapists will prescribe specific stretching routines to increase range of motion, improve posture, and relieve muscle tension. 

Some beneficial stretches include: 

  • Hamstring stretches 

  • Quad stretches 

  • Lower back rotations 

  • Chest and shoulder stretches 


Increasing flexibility reduces strain on the back and minimizes risk of injury. Regular stretching helps keep muscles loose and relaxed. 


Postural Correction 


Poor posture puts extra strain on the back. Physical therapists can assess posture issues and provide guidance on proper spinal alignment. They may prescribe specific exercises to correct posture like chin tucks or wall angels. 


Improving posture trains the body to hold itself in a position that minimizes stress on the back. Maintaining good posture becomes habitual with consistent practice. 


Manual Therapy   

a back massage

Hands-on techniques like massage, joint mobilization, and trigger point therapy applied by a physical therapist can relieve muscle tension, reduce pain, and improve mobility. 


Gentle tissue massage increases blood flow and loosens tight muscles. Mobilizing joints and soft tissues provides motion to restricted areas. Trigger point therapy releases knots and spasms. 


Manual techniques complement an overall rehabilitation program focused on restoring strength, flexibility, and ideal alignment. 


Additional Therapies 


Physical therapists often use additional treatments and techniques in combination with exercises and hands-on mobilization to provide back pain relief. Some of the most common additional therapies include: 


Heat/Ice Therapy 


  • Applying heat can relax tight muscles and increase blood flow. Heat is commonly applied with hot packs, heating pads, or warm compresses.    

  • Ice can reduce inflammation and pain. Cold therapy is often used with ice packs or gel packs. 


  • Alternating heat and ice is a technique frequently used by physical therapists. The contrast of going from hot to cold can provide pain relief. 




Ultrasound uses sound waves to provide deep heating within the tissues. This helps relax muscles, reduce stiffness, and improve mobility. Ultrasound can reach deeper tissues than heat alone. 


Electrical Stimulation 


Electrical stimulation techniques use small electrical currents to target nerves and muscles. This can help block pain signals, relax muscles, and stimulate weakened muscles to contract and strengthen. Types of electrical stimulation include TENS units and interferential current therapy. 


Combining these additional treatments with targeted exercises, stretches, and manual techniques allows the physical therapist to develop a comprehensive program for back pain relief. The combination of modalities is often more effective than any single technique alone. 


Benefits Over Pain Medication 


a hand on the back of the elderly gentleman getting a massage

Most people reach for pain medication as a first line of treatment for back pain. While medication can provide temporary relief of symptoms, it fails to address the underlying structural and muscular issues causing the pain. Relying solely on medication masks the root cause and allows dysfunction in the body to continue unchecked. 


Physical therapy takes a more holistic, cause-oriented approach. The goal is to accurately diagnose the factors contributing to back pain and devise an active treatment plan to resolve them. This leads to long-term improvement by strengthening muscles, restoring mobility, aligning the spine, and teaching proper movement patterns. It treats not just the symptoms but the source of the problem. 


Medications come with side effects that can compound issues over time. These include upset stomach, constipation, drowsiness, and potential addiction. Physical therapy has no negative side effects, and patients are actively involved in their own recovery. 


Rather than reaching for a pill whenever back pain flares up, physical therapy empowers patients with the knowledge and tools to manage their condition independently. It equips them to prevent future injuries and maintain a healthy, pain-free back without ongoing reliance on medication. 


Benefits Over Surgery 


Physical therapy is often a preferable first treatment option for back pain compared to surgery. Surgery for back pain carries risks and is usually only recommended after more conservative treatments like physical therapy have failed. 

a therapist stretching out a patient on a table

Physical therapy offers several advantages over back surgery: 


  • Non-invasive - Physical therapy is non-invasive and does not require any cutting or implants. Surgery is invasive and alters the tissues and structures in the back. Physical therapy helps avoid potential surgical complications like infection, bleeding, and poor wound healing.   

  • Lower cost - The cost of surgery and associated hospital stays is far higher than outpatient physical therapy treatment. Most insurance plans cover some physical therapy as well. Surgery can lead to a high out-of-pocket expense.    

  • Faster recovery - With physical therapy, recovery is usually faster with no extensive downtime needed. Surgical recovery often requires weeks of reduced activity to allow healing. Physical therapy allows patients to get back to normal life faster.    

  • Avoid surgical complications - Surgery carries inherent risks like nerve damage, bleeding, infection, blood clots, and adverse reactions to anesthesia. Physical therapy avoids these risks entirely. Surgeries can sometimes lead to chronic pain if complications arise. 


Overall, physical therapy provides a safer, less invasive, more affordable, and faster path to back pain relief compared to surgical options. Unless the back condition is severe, physical therapy should be explored first. Surgery can often be avoided with successful conservative physical therapy treatment. 


Success Rates 


Physical therapy has been shown to provide significant pain relief and improved mobility for many patients suffering from back pain. Numerous studies have found high success rates for physical therapy in treating back pain: 


  • A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that 60% of patients with lower back pain reported a 30% reduction in pain after 12 weeks of physical therapy. Additionally, 75% of patients had improved mobility and were able to resume normal daily activities.    

  • A meta analysis published in the European Spine Journal looked at 48 randomized trials comparing physical therapy to other treatments for lower back pain. The analysis found strong evidence that intensive physical therapy, including exercise, mobilization, and manipulation, was effective at reducing pain and improving function. Success rates were highest when therapy was supervised and lasted longer than 30 days.    

  • Surveys of physical therapy patients consistently report high satisfaction rates - around 90% according to one study in Spine. The majority of patients said physical therapy helped them achieve measurable reductions in pain, improvements in mobility, and a better quality of life. Most were able to reduce or eliminate pain medication usage. 


The evidence clearly demonstrates that physical therapy offers an effective solution for many patients suffering from back pain. With appropriate therapy supervised by a licensed professional, most patients can expect to see a reduction in pain, increased mobility, and improved function. For many, physical therapy can eliminate the need for pain medication or surgery and lead to lasting relief. 


Ricardo the PT pointing to our awards

When searching for a physical therapist to help treat your back pain, it's important to find one who is a good fit for your individual needs. Here are some tips for selecting a physical therapist and questions to ask: 


Tips for Selecting a PT 


  • Look for a PT who specializes in treating back pain or orthopedic conditions. They will have more experience and knowledge treating your specific issue.    

  • Search for PTs who have advanced certifications in manual therapy techniques that can help relieve back pain, such as McKenzie, Maitland, Paris, Cyriax, or trigger point therapy.    

  • Find a PT who makes you feel comfortable and listens attentively to your concerns. Trust and communication are key to a successful PT-patient relationship.    

  • Choose a PT located near your home or work to make attending appointments convenient. 


Questions to Ask 


When interviewing potential physical therapists, make sure to ask: 


  • How many years have you been practicing as a PT? More experience tends to mean better outcomes.   

  • What continuing education courses or trainings have you completed recently? Look for up to date knowledge and skills.    

  • What percentage of your patients have back pain issues? Choose a PT with significant expertise treating back pain specifically.    

  • What treatments and modalities do you use for back pain? Make sure they mention proven options like core strengthening, flexibility exercises, manual therapy, etc.    

  • Do you collaborate with doctors or other health professionals to coordinate patient care? Integrated care generally produces better results.    

  • What goals do you set for your patients? Goals should be functional improvements, not just pain relief.    

  • What follow up do you provide after discharge? Ongoing support can help sustain gains. 




Physical therapy can be highly beneficial for back pain relief through techniques like exercise, massage, and other therapies that reduce pain and improve mobility without medication or surgery. If you suffer from back pain, consider exploring physical therapy as an effective option before trying riskier treatments. Schedule a consultation with a licensed physical therapist to have your condition properly assessed and start developing a customized treatment plan. With the right physical therapist, you can find relief from back pain and get back to enjoying your normal active life. 

Ready to enhance your mobility and independence? Call us today to schedule your personalized geriatric physical therapy consultation!

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