Most episodes of acute back pain respond promptly to several days of rest followed by the gradual resumption of activities within the limits of pain. Non-narcotic analgesics and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs may be helpful in relieving pain but do not shorten the course. (Since some of these drugs affect alertness and reaction time, they should be used with caution by individuals who drive vehicles or have assignments where momentary lapses may result in harm to patients.) A variety of forms of physiotherapy (e.g., local applications of heat or cold, diathermy, massage, manipulation, etc.) often provide short periods of transient relief; they are particularly useful as a prelude to graded exercises that will promote the restoration of muscle strength and relaxation as well as flexibility. Prolonged bed rest, traction and the use of lumbar corsets tend to delay recovery and often lengthen the period of disability (Blow and Jayson 1988).
Chronic, recurrent back pain is best treated by a secondary prevention regimen. Getting enough rest, sleeping on a firm mattress, sitting in straight chairs, wearing comfortable, well-fitted shoes, maintaining good posture and avoiding long periods of standing in one position are important adjuncts. Excessive or prolonged use of medications increase the risk of side effects and should be avoided. Some cases are helped by the injection of “trigger points”, localized tender nodules in muscles and ligaments, as originally advocated in the seminal report by Lange (1931).
Exercise of key postural muscles (upper and lower abdominal, back, gluteal and thigh muscles) is the mainstay of both chronic care and prevention of back pain. Kraus (1970) has formulated a regimen that features strengthening exercises to correct muscle weakness, relaxing exercises to relief tension, spasticity and rigidity, stretching exercises to minimize contractures and exercises to improve balance and coordination. These exercises, he cautions, should be individualized on the basis of examination of the patient and functional tests of muscle strength, holding power and elasticity (e.g., the Kraus-Weber tests (Kraus 1970)). To avoid adverse effects of exercise, each session should include warm-up and cool-down exercises as well as limbering and relaxing exercises, and the number, duration and intensity of the exercises should be increased gradually as conditioning improves. Simply giving the patient a printed exercise sheet or booklet is not enough; initially, he or she should be given individual instruction and observed to be sure that the exercises are being done correctly.
In 1974, the YMCA in New York introduced the “Y’s Way to a Healthy Back Program”, a low-cost course of exercise training based on the Kraus exercises; in 1976 it became a national programme in the US and, later, it was established in Australia and in several European countries (Melleby 1988). The twice-a-week, six week programme is given by specially-trained YMCA exercise instructors and volunteers, mainly in urban YMCAs (arrangements for courses at the worksite have been made by a number of employers), and it emphasizes the indefinite continuation of the exercises at home. Approximately 80% of the thousands of individuals with chronic or recurrent back pain who have participated in this program have reported elimination or improvement in their pain.