Back pain. It’s something virtually everyone experiences at some point in life, striking 80 percent of all Americans. It's a leading cause of hospital emergency room visits and a primary reason billions of dollars are spent each year on painkillers, back surgery, and other expensive treatments.
But Patrick Roth, M.D., one of the nation's top neurosurgeons, says there's a better way to banish back pain — whether it's caused by arthritis, disc problems, or that weekend warrior mentality that causes so many to overdo it at the gym, on the tennis court, or the golf course.
In his new book, "The End of Back Pain," Dr. Roth — the chairman of neurosurgery at Hackensack University Medical Center — details how to eliminate discomfort in as little as six weeks through a series of easy-to-perform exercises that strengthen the core muscles of the back.
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Dr. Roth tells Newsmax Health that conventional approaches to treating back pain – including painkillers and traditional muscle-strengthening exercises – aren't the best way go.
"It sounds like a crazy paradox that taking pain medication can actually bring on more pain, but that’s in fact the truth," he says. "What’s interesting about it is that we all have pain-stifling mechanisms that our bodies use naturally to control pain … So when we take pain medication from the outside what it does is it kind of jumps into that system and alters it.
"And when that pain medication wears away … our natural pain stifling mechanisms don’t work as well, so we have more pain, actually a lower pain threshold."
Another surprising assertion Dr. Roth makes is that resting your back when you're in pain may not be the most effective way to deal with it.
"Probably the best time to exercise is not when you’re in pain, but in between pain episodes so you can prevent those pain episodes, but a very under-utilized time to use exercise is while you’re still in pain,” he explains. “And to a certain extent, we as physicians are the problem because we have a tendency to tell our patients let patients be your guide: 'If it hurts don’t do it.'
"[But] it turns out that’s probably not great advice and when patients are willing to exercise while in pain somewhat they’re often surprised at how it helps their pain very very quickly in fact."
Back pain is more than merely an uncomfortable nuisance and is a serious, sometimes debilitating condition for many Americans.
- Back pain is among the five leading causes for doctor and hospital visits, accounting for 1.4 million trips to ERs in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- An estimated 8 in 10 people seek treatment for back pain at some point in their lives, federal statistics show.
- The U.S. spends more than any other nation on prescription pain medication – more than $8 billion a year, adding up to about 110 tons of pain pills.
- Americans spend $30 billion annually on back surgery, chiropractic treatments, and other therapies to alleviate back pain.
Dr. Roth notes that back pain is notoriously difficult to treat through medication and surgery. One reason: It is not only physical, but emotional and mental, as well. But he argues that we can "retrain" our brains to perceive pain differently, which can help ease it.
"Our brain alters all of our senses as they come into the brain. So pain is no exception…so there's a very complicated relationship between the brain and the body. And understanding that and particularly exercising the back utilizes that relationship so you can actually convince your brain that you have less pain by exercising your back, when your brain initially thought that that back exercise would hurt… And to a certain extent the way we react to pain can be learned and modified."
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At the center of Dr. Roth’s program are a series of exercises he calls the "hidden core workout" that incorporate stretching, muscle-strengthening, and isometrics.
"The reason I say hidden is because it reflects the muscles that are behind us," he explains. "Everybody knows that you have to have a strong core for back pain. But most people … perceive the core as the front of them, the part they see when they look in the mirror. One of the ideas that I have …is that they can strengthen the muscles behind them [and] that they'll actually get a lot more mileage [than if they are] strengthening the muscles in front."
Dr. Roth's program places a higher priority on working back muscles over abdominals, and emphasizes endurance over strength over stretching to create an "internal corset" of muscles that can help ease pain.
"It turns out the endurance of the muscles is more important than the strength of the muscles [and] it’s better to strengthen first and then stretch, than the other way around … [to] create an internal brace that stabilizes your back and reduces pain."
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