March 3, 2005
Back pain stinks. Ask someone who’s gone a few rounds with it — about four out of five Americans, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Steve Coe, 57, of Mesa has had back pain ever since high school. A high jumper, Coe remembers landing wrong and having trouble walking afterward. Since then a slipped disc has been a continuous problem.
"Basically I’m in pain all the time," Coe says. Most times it doesn’t stop him from doing the things he wants — as long as he keeps exercising and stretching. "I walk and move pretty stiffly," he says. Some of that is to avoid the "zing" he experiences from time to time — a sensation that pierces his soul when he makes a bad move. Those zings, when the disc pushes or pinches a nerve, don’t generally come when skiing or bike riding, but when doing something inconsequential.
"A year ago I woke up and I was off work for a week." Coe figures he slept wrong.
"I’m not in pain all the time," says Eric Marmont, 50. "But when the weather is going to change, I can tell a couple days in advance."
Marmont, a retired California highway patrol officer living in Gilbert, knows what caused his back problems. You don’t soon forget a speeding car that hits you at an accident scene. Spinal fusion was the result. "I have a hard time standing or sitting for long periods of time." And it’s difficult for him to lift anything.
Like Coe, Marmont knows exercising is important to his back health. Marmont, who walks two to three miles a day, is vigilant about watching his weight.
Strengthening muscles is what physical therapists do for people with back pain. Other treatments include chiropractic, to align bones; acupuncture, to relieve pain; and surgery, when nothing else has worked.
In his practice at Functional Performance Center in Tempe, Derek Steveson helps a variety of people with back pain through physical therapy. Steveson, the official rehabilitation consultant for the Arizona Diamondbacks, says imbalance, brought on by repetitive movement, can be one cause of pain, but pain also can occur when the body is asked to do more than it is capable of regardless of the fitness level. That’s why back pain affects professional athletes as well as couch potatoes.
"The people who seek medical attention the least (for bad backs) have diverse involvement in activities," Steveson says. Someone who swims, hikes, bikes and does yoga is less likely to have back problems than someone who does just one of those things. Movement variety strengthens the musculo -skeletal system. Often that movement is unconscious. And that’s how Steveson says he rehabilitates people. In his opinion, machine weights do little to improve functional movement — as they isolate muscle-use patterns.
"The key is integrating more muscles to help absorb the load," he says. The more integrated the movements, the less stress on the back.
Terry Roach, a Scottsdale resident and owner of the Phoenix physical therapy facility Body Stabilization Training, says building strength in different muscle groups and neutralizing spine movement are approaches she takes to treat back pain. "People are always calling upon their back for power," says the registered kinesio-therapist.
The constant arching and flexing of the back to compensate for what muscles elsewhere, especially leg muscles, should be doing is often the cause of pain. "Most people," she says, "do not have enough strength in their legs to support their structure."
Roach works to help people realign posture and develop new habits in how they sleep, stand and walk. Not only does this make the back better, but it gives a person more energy during the day, she says. "But you have to change. You cannot continue to slam your body the same way."
Chiropractor Shanlyn Newman of Mesa believes proper spinal alignment is fundamental to preventing back pain.
"Your body is like a house," Newman says. "If the foundation is crooked, the roof isn’t going to be safe." Because the back has so many articulations, there are plenty of places and ways for things to go wrong. Traumas such as falling off a bike can cause misalignment as can repetitive movements. Emotional stress and chemical stress are factors in back pain. Excess body weight, particularly when it is carried around the stomach, can strain the back.
Acupuncture is one treatment people are increasingly turning to for pain relief. According to Dr. Ave Sims, naturopathic physician with The Center for True Harmony Wellness Center in Mesa, acupuncture promotes the flow of energy throughout the body. Pain is an obstruction of that energy, or chi. Acupuncture is particularly helpful with pain caused by a pinched sciatica nerve and a bulging disc.
"Most people would rather do this than something like cortisone injections, which are more invasive," Sims says. Side effects of medications are a concern among the patients she sees. "My whole focus is prevention." She suggests people establish good posture and lifting techniques before they have problems, and exercise to increase flexibility, strengthen muscles and improve aerobic capacity.
• Functional Performance (480) 968-2020
• Body Stabilization Training (602) 522-9419
• Newman Chiropractic (480) 835-1174
• Center for True Harmony Wellness and Medicine (480) 539-6646