Your back is one of the hardest working parts of your body. Having a strong back keeps us upright and allows us to balance, walk and be active. It’s also one of the most common sources for aches and pains; a study in 2009 estimated that 80% of adults will experience back pain at some point in their lives.

And with most of us spending more time at home these days, getting less physical activity can increase the odds of back problems.

Man doing crunches at the gym.

Patti Farese, a physical therapist and vice president of a Physiquality member clinic in Florida, Farese Physical Therapy, explains the complexity of our back structures. There are a lot of working parts in the back: 24 vertebrae (in the cervical, thoracic and lumbar sections of the spine) held together by myriad ligaments and stabilized by more than 140 muscles – including abdominal, pelvic and hip muscles. This is why many physical therapists suggest working on the core first when discussing minor back pain.

When most athletes think of their core muscles, they think of their abdominals, which can be strengthened through crunches or sit ups, planks, and more. But Breakthrough San Diego Physical Therapy, a new Physiquality member in California, reminds readers that the core is made of more than the six-pack. The muscles around your ribs, upper back and neck are just as important for stability, as they support the back in rotation, says Santiago Osorio, a physical therapist and the owner of Breakthrough SD. He recommends thinking about these points when strengthening these muscles:

  • Isometric exercise involves static contractions of muscles without moving your joints. Start by working in isometric positions to avoid compensating with other muscles.
  • Make sure you worry about form before you worry about strengthening.
  • Coordinate muscle contractions with your breath.
Woman wearing a sports bra and leggings exercises on a yoga mat outside. She is demonstrating a forearm plank, with her weight balanced on her forearms and feet.

Santiago emphasizes the importance of using the proper form in static exercises (with little movement) before you start doing more dynamic exercises (coordinating with other movement patterns). This is particularly important if you’re strengthening the muscles that support the back. If you put too much stress on those muscles, he warns, you will be putting your back at risk.

If you do experience back pain, one of your first thoughts might be wondering what’s causing it. Outside of minor aches and pains, there are three common conditions that can cause sharp or acute back pain, according to George Hess, a physical therapist and founder of Hess Physical Therapy, a Physiquality member in Pennsylvania.

The first is a herniated disc, which is when the gelatinous material in the center of the vertebral disc pushes through the disc’s exterior structure. The second are common side effects of aging, like arthritis (when one or more of the discs between the vertebra wears down) and degenerative disc disease (when the vertebrae themselves have worn down). The third cause is problems in the sacroiliac joints, between the sacrum, the boney structure below the last vertebrae, and the illium, or the pelvis. These are all issues that you should discuss with a physical therapist or doctor to determine the best treatment for your pain.

Black and white image of a man holding his back; his lower back is highlighted in red, to imply pain.

But what would those feel like? What symptoms would someone feel that should prompt a call to a PT instead of just strengthening at home? Pay attention to the following symptoms, says Stuart Siegner, a physical therapist and the co-founder of HealthQuest Physical Therapy, a Physiquality member in Michigan:

  • Numbness in the lower extremities
  • Muscle spasms
  • Joint dysfunction
  • Muscle weakness
  • Dull, aching sensation
  • Decreased range of motion
  • Aching or stiffness along the spine
  • Leg numbness or “pins and needles”
  • Inability to stand straight without pain
  • Difficulty standing for long periods of time
  • Stabbing or shooting pain that can radiate down the leg

If you experience ANY of these symptoms for more than five days, it’s time to talk to a physical therapist to figure out what is causing the pain and how to treat it.

To talk to a PT about your back pain symptoms, contact your nearest Physiquality location. Use our locator below to find a clinic close to you.

Thank you to our contributors:

BreakingThrough San Diego Physical Therapy is a new Physiquality member in California. Their goal is to help patients achieve better health, better quality of life, resolution of pain, and better results through physical therapy.

Founded by Patti Farese in 1992, Physiquality member Farese Physical Therapy operates in St. Petersburg, Florida. Specializing in the treatment of the hand and upper extremities, Farese Physical Therapy strives to offer care without compromise.

HealthQuest Physical Therapy is a Physiquality member with more than 25 locations throughout Michigan. Started by Bill Knight and Stuart Siegner in 1999, their goals remain the same as when they opened their first clinic: provide high-quality rehabilitation and promote proactive healthcare.

Physiquality member Hess Physical Therapy offers PT at three locations in Pennsylvania. Their clinics specialize in back and neck conditions, sports injuries, work-related injuries, balance and fall prevention, and general orthopedic problems.

Back pain FAQ: Symptoms. HealthQuest Physical Therapy, July 1, 2020.

Breakthrough San Diego Physical Therapy.

Top 3 causes of back pain and sciatica. Hess Physical Therapy, November 2, 2016.

Understanding low back pain. Farese Physical Therapy.

How to carry a baby without breaking your back. Physiquality, November 3, 2014.

Freburger, Janet, et al. The rising prevalence of low back pain. Archives of Internal Medicine, February 9, 2009.

“Girl exercising doing a plank” by PTPioneer is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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