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Remedies for back pain that help avoid the surgeon’s knife

A member of my family came to me recently with the distressing news that they were about to undergo a surgical procedure to relieve back pain. The doctor, he assured me, had showed him the images of an MRI scan that clearly indicated degeneration of spinal discs and said that this was the cause of his discomfort.
Yet, having gone ahead with the procedure, it has so far done little to relieve the pain. I was reminded of this when I spoke to Kit Laughlin, an Australian expert in physiology and the causes of back ache. He noted that a 1994 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that MRIs of 97 people with no back pain showed that a majority nonetheless had visible disc problems, such as a protrusion or a bulge, and 38 per cent had these problems in more than one disc.

Our unsymmetrical bodies are the issue, not disc deformity
The study concluded that “the discovery by MRI of bulges or protrusions in people with low back pain may frequently be coincidental”. In other words, it is often not the discs that are causing the pain, even though they may look terrible. To which Mr Laughlin adds: “Diagnostic technology can’t see soft structures like muscles, nerves or fascia and that’s why so many back operations are so spectacularly unsuccessful.”
To counter this, he has produced a new version of his book Overcome Neck and Back Pain , to which I have referred before in a column about joint flexibility. The book outlines a conservative approach to back pain management that sufferers could consider before trying a surgical solution, such as the fusion of vertebrae.
Mr Laughlin’s view is that only about 1 per cent of back pain sufferers have spinal deformities that require surgical intervention. One way to tell is if you have good days when back pain diminishes, alongside bad days when pain is relatively intense. Such situational pain often means the cause is something other than discs.
One of the things I admire about Mr Laughlin is that at 63 he is not afraid to admit that he too suffers from aches and pains, including bouts of backache, such as when he recently threw his back into spasm stepping off an 8cm kerb in a car park. The trick is knowing how to fix the problem.
His big insight is that people think their bodies are symmetrical, but frequently they are not. One side is usually tighter or more flexible than the other. This applies not just to the upper body, which might be expected from using one hand more than the other, but also to the lower body. In fact, he notes that almost 50 per cent of the population has one leg physically longer than the other, which can easily be fixed with a heel insert.
Mr Laughlin says golfers often suffer from back pains related to the fact that their sport requires them to swing their bodies around the axis of rotation in only one direction many times a year and they become unbalanced. Similarly, boat crews move one shoulder in a wider arc than the other when rowing.
The answer to many of these muscle problems, which he demonstrates in his book and videos, is to gently stretch muscles until they relax on the overly tight side and to build up with exercise muscles that are too loose on the correspondingly weak side.
He adds that you should only stretch when your body is warm, preferably before the evening meal, and only twice a week, to allow the body to heal.
FT

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