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How Physical Therapy Can Help Back Pain

by Lori Diamos43 Comments

The back is designed to protect the spinal cord. However, it is also like a set of stackable blocks with bones that connect and run from the base of the head, to the bottom of our tailbone. Those stackable blocks keep us erect/upright, maintain posture, absorb shock and provide a stable base for our arms and legs to attach to for everyday movement.  There are three sections of the spine:

  1. the neck or cervical region,
  2. the mid-back or thoracic region, and
  3. the low back or lumbar-sacral region.

Spinal control and good positioning are necessary for safe and efficient movement patterns so any musculoskeletal breakdown in the chain can lead to back pain.

It is estimated that 8 out of 10 people will experience back pain at some point in their life.  Americans spend at least 50 billion dollars on back pain each year. Back pain is the most common cause of job-related disability and it is a main contributor to missed days at work. Severity of back pain ranges from acute to chronic, sometimes lasting days, months and possibly years. Pain varies from person to person and can be as basic as a dull ache to sharp, shooting or even radiating complaints. In significant or long lasting cases it typically requires one or more trips to the doctor for further review, treatment and diagnosis. In addition to the doctor, physical therapists can play a big role in helping to alleviate or manage your back pain.

Physical therapists undergo extensive training in the musculoskeletal and neuromuscular systems equipping them to effectively evaluate, manage and treat a variety of different spinal issues from degeneration/arthritis, to such things as sprain/strain, spinal stenosis, sciatica, scoliosis, herniated disks and spondylolisthesis to name just a few.  When given an order for physical therapy a typical frequency and duration ranges from 1-3 times a week for 2-8 weeks or greater depending on the severity of your condition.

Your first visit to a physical therapist for back pain entails a thorough evaluation where the therapist getsx-ray-lower-back a sense of what makes you better or worse and learns your specific strengths or weaknesses. The therapist will create a problem list to generate an individualized plan to address your specific needs.  Because a physical therapist sees you on a regular basis for an extended period of time, they will be there for any ups and downs or negative responses to activity. Therapist can also aid in modifying, progressing or adjusting exercises and activities to meet your tolerance. A physical therapist plays a large role in communicating your progress to your physician. They will give the doctor information he or she needs to make informed decisions on any further medical needs you may have for your back issue.

From evaluation to discharge a physical therapy can help back pain in many ways and below are a few examples of how.

  1. During the evaluation your past medical history will be reviewed so any prior injuries, surgeries or medical conditions that could affect your back are uncovered and can be addressed if appropriate or necessary throughout your ongoing treatment.
  2. Posture will be assessed and reviewed with a progression of corrective strategies initiated throughout treatment if deficits exist.
  3. Your therapist will want to know more about your occupation, daily household activities, hobbies and recreational sports so you can be educated in safe spine positioning, body mechanics and even ergonomics to help you decrease any possible repetitive stress that may exist for your spine
  4. A strength assessment will be performed for your core, scapular stabilizers and hips/lower extremities as needed with a progression of exercises given throughout your course of treatment to improve strength, stability and motor control.
  5. Joint range of motion and tissue flexibility will be evaluated with education and performance of stretching techniques as well as manual work per your therapists’ discretion.
  6. To help manage pain, your therapist may utilize a variety of different therapeutic techniques to ease your discomfort such as heat, ice, ultrasound, TENS or traction.
  7. Pain can cause stress and uncertainty so many times a therapist helps most just by listening and encouraging through difficult times.

The best thing you can do is be proactive about your back health.  Rather than waiting for an injury to occur come on in and schedule a Functional Movement Assessment with one of our certified physical therapists, athletic trainers or fitness professionals to get a baseline of your current movement patterns. Learn how to maximize your movement potential but more importantly reduce your risk of possible injury in the future through appropriate corrective measures.  Let us help you head off your back pain before it has a chance to begin!  We look forward to seeing you.

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The Athletico blog is an educational resource written by Athletico employees. Athletico bloggers are licensed professionals who abide by the code of ethics outlined by their respective professional associations. The content published in blog posts represents the opinion of the individual author based on their expertise and experience. The content provided in this blog is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice and should not be relied on for making personal health decisions.

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Lori Diamos was a physical therapist at Athletico Physical Therapy at the time of this blog.


  1. Delores Lyon

    I had no idea you could go to physical therapy even if you haven’t been in an accident or anything like that. I feel like my back has been hurting me more and more, but I wasn’t sure what I could do. Now I will definitely try contacting the hospital’s physical therapy center to see if they can help.

  2. Lori Diamos

    Hi Delores! In general if something hurts and it is affecting function (even if there was no type of accident or specific trauma) physical therapy can often be helpful so call or see your physician to get a referral to PT. Here at Athletico we also offer a complimentary injury screen which could be performed by a Physical Therapist or an Athletic Trainer depending on availability. It is not physical therapy but rather a brief screen to discover your deficits and to see if it warrants referral to a local physician for follow up or possibly a referral to therapy. Some deficits may not require medical follow up at which point you may benefit from a consult with one of our certified fitness or exercise specialists where some private personal training sessions may do the trick to get things back on track. Hope that helps and if something has been hurting you for awhile I would definitely recommend getting it checked out.

  3. Eric Blaise


    Thank you very much for this article. I just wanted to clarify one thing, at the beginning of the article, you state that the back is designed to protect the spinal cord, aren’t the back and the spinal cord pretty much the same? I mean the spinal cord is in reality the back (or the underlying structure of the back) either way, I think I understand what you mean, the vertebral column is indented as to protect it from potential injury, and there are muscles that protrude from the back, further providing even more protection.

  4. Lori Diamos

    Hi Eric,great comment. To clarify the spinal cord is actually a bundle of nerve fibers that originate in the brain and branch off into nerves. In essence the vertebra or bones of the back create a protective tunnel or canal for the spinal cord to reside in with individual nerves branching off the cord at differing spinal levels which aid in sensation and or muscle function. Hope that helps to clarify things!

  5. Brandon Roberts

    For the past few years, I have had some pretty bad back pain due to me playing football for 11 years. And during that time, I fractured my spine as well. I went through a little therapy, but I feel like it wasn’t enough because my back still hurts. I’m glad these therapists use many different techniques to help manage the pain. I really do need it. So I am going to keep this website in mind to make sure I find the right therapist for me. Thanks a ton!

  6. Alex Jennings

    Hey, Lori. Thank you for this informative post. I’ve been struggling with chronic back pain for years. It’s very hard trying to find an effective treatment. One of the best treatments that I’ve had implemented daily physical therapy. Although some days are better than others, physical therapy has offered me sustainable, quantifiable results.

    Alex Jennings |

  7. Lori Diamos

    Hi Alex, I am glad physical therapy is helping you and happy to hear you found the article informative. Good luck with your continued care!

  8. Deanna R. Jones

    Thanks for the information! I’ve been experiencing some back pain for the past few weeks. Searching for the right method for treating my back pain has been difficult for the past few weeks. It’s good to know that physical therapists go through extensive training to help heal their client’s backs. It seems like I should see a therapist about relieving the pain in my lower back.

  9. Douglas Brown

    It’s time like this where I read about how many people have back pain and I wish that I had listened to my mom regarding my posture! I experience back pain on a daily basis, but I’ve found that being very conscious of my posture helps a ton. You have some great advice here. You say that a therapist would probably use heat/ice as a solution, but before I go to them is it a good idea to try that on my own and see how it works? Thanks for the post!

  10. Irena Ryans

    Thanks for the information. I was involved in an accident a few weeks ago. I’ve been having a lot of back pain since then, but I don’t really want to see a doctor. Is it true that physical therapy really can help back pain? I’ll make sure that I find a therapist that, like you said, “utilizes a variety of different therapeutic techniques”. Is there anything else I should watch out for?

  11. Chase Wilson

    Great article. I am not surprised by the number of people that experience back pain each year. With all the sitting and sedentary lifestyles we have, it doesn’t surprise me a whole lot. Back injuries are so important to get taken care of though. That is serious stuff. I had a friend that got hurt playing basketball and she was never the same. Do you have any tips for athletes?

  12. Jamarcus Dantley

    I used to work at a physical therapy clinic when I was in college. We would often see people with back pain, and it seems like quite the annoying symptom! I like your point about being proactive with your back health. That can really help to make sure no greater problems come up.

  13. Virginia Davis

    Thanks for the information. A few years ago, I injured my ankle and did physical therapy. My mom has been going to physical therapy for a whiplash injury. I agree that “the best thing you can do is be proactive about your back health” and your health in general. Even though both my mom and I visited the physical therapist after a clear injury, I agree that anything you can do to reduce the possibility of injury in the future is a good thing. Is there anything in particular your recommend looking for when choosing a physical therapist?

  14. Natalie Darcy

    That is actually super helpful and interesting! My father has had back pain for quite a while now and sadly it has made it very hard for him to do much of anything. How fascinating that 8 out of 10 people have back pain! I will be sure to find my father a good physical therapist, do you have any tips as to how I would find the appropriate one? Hopefully I will be able to help him out so he can be back to his old self, thank you!

  15. Becki

    I had no idea you could go to physical therapy even if you haven’t been in an accident or anything like that. I feel like my back has been hurting me more and more, but I wasn’t sure what I could do. Now I will definitely try contacting the hospital’s physical therapy center to see if they can help.

  16. McKayla Strauss

    I knew that back pain was a common thing, but I didn’t realize just how many people would experience it in their life. Honestly, I’m a little jealous of those 2 out of 10 people that don’t ever experience it. My back pain has only just recently started, but I haven’t had time to treat it at all. Hopefully I can do something about it a little bit later this week.

  17. Nick Mallory

    Thanks for the post. I’m glad that you’ve highlighted how PT can help back pain. I especially like that you mentioned that core strength can be key to understanding and correcting back pain. Many people don’t realize how connected the body is; you can’t ignore one area without that causing problems elsewhere. You’re knowledge is very informative.

  18. Emily Smith

    Thank you so much for helping me understand how physiotherapy can help back pain. I like how in the physiotherapy process, the doctors take an account of your medical history so that they can address things that might have caused the back pain. Then they can devise a treatment for you. For example, if I was in a car accident, the doctors should know that because that would help them treat me.

  19. James Bay

    I have been experiencing back pain ever since a bad snowboarding injury I had a while ago. I like the idea of going to a physical therapist to remedy the issue. Rather than subside the pain through other means. Thank you for the post.

  20. Lori Diamos

    McKayla, back pain does occur at a high frequency and I hope you were able to successfully address yours. If you haven’t and live near an Athletico call or stop in for a complimentary injury screening to get the process started. Good luck!

  21. Lori Diamos

    Jamarcus I absolutely agree that we should be proactive about our back pain and health in general. I hope to see a greater shift towards preventative medicine rather than just our more common reactionary model as we can all surely benefit more from this type of approach.

  22. Lori Diamos

    Chase, athletes usually have access to skilled athletic trainers if they are playing competitively. I think in addition to utilizing their trainers the key is being honest and admitting they have pain. Too many athletes ignore their pain or fear they have to play through it because their team is counting on them. In the long run that does no one any good and athlete or not if pain is present our body is telling us we need to do something about it.

  23. Lori Diamos

    Douglas heat and ice are both things you can safely and easily try at home. I would aim for around 10-15 minutes and don’t keep it on too long or you could get a heat or ice burn if you are not careful. Good Luck!

  24. Nash Rich

    I didn’t know so many people had back pain and that 50 billion dollars is spent a year! I haven’t had any crazy problems, but I’ve definitely had back pain ever since I was a gymnast. I’m probably going to have worse back problems when I get older. It’s good physical therapy is around to help with our bodily problems. My mom had to do some when she broke her leg, and she has had a full recovery. There was a lot of good info here, thanks!

  25. Andrea

    Sitting for hours can accumulate pain in the back. This is my most concern as I’m facing my desktop for hours. Exercise helps me relieve the pain but I think a physical therapy is for the long term run.

  26. Meagan

    Backs are something that truly need to be handed with care. Love that you don’t want to actually have to be injured. This helps protect you from injuries. Thanks for sharing!

  27. Ridley Fitzgerald

    It’s great to know that physical therapy can help with back pain. I have dealt with back pain for years and years, and I want to get rid of it as much as I can. I like how you said that the therapist is there for any ups and downs in the process. Having that support would be nice.

  28. Jordyn Crane

    This was an awesome and helpful article…I believe in professionals so this is a very useful article for everyone. Many thanks for your share.

  29. Jade Brunet

    My cousin has suffered from back pain ever since being involved in a car accident several years ago. It is interesting to learn that on a first visit to the physical therapist, there is an evaluation where the therapist gets a sense of what makes you better or worse. It would be good for the specialist to learn your specific strengths and weaknesses. I will inform my cousin that physical therapy might be something that can finally offer her relief.

  30. Bosh Physical Therapy

    So many people don’t realize how much physical therapy can help with back pain. Back pain is such a common problem among adults and many people think that they must just live with it. I think it is helpful that you outlined the general procedure that a patient will go through during their first physical therapy session. This will help people feel less intimidated and more likely to seek out a physical therapist. Thanks for sharing!

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