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Tracy Maltz, DPT

Q: Can physical therapy help my back pain?

A: Many patients wonder if physical therapy can reduce their back pain or if they should wait to see if their back heals naturally over time.

The answer is yes to both.

We know that 60 to 80 percent of back pain gets better over time. But we also know that if back pain returns, it tends to come back with even more pain or more limited function. The back pain may move into the buttocks or the leg. So we recommend getting early care for any back or neck pain that doesn’t improve with just rest and ice.

Physical therapists can help determine the source of the back pain. We do this by watching how someone responds to physical therapy. I like to ask what kinds of positions seem to alleviate the symptoms and what kind of positions or activities seem to aggravate symptoms. This guides our next steps.

If back pain is caused by a nerve being compressed in the lower spine, some exercises can help relocate the pressure on the nerve. This can lessen the pain and help the nerve better communicate with the muscle, restoring strength.

Another important role of physical therapy is to help patients manage and understand their symptoms. If the pain returns, they know to seek help before allowing it to get further aggravated.
It’s important for the patient to understand that when they come to physical therapy, they are signing up to take an active role in their own healing. There are many exercises that they’re going to need to do at home to treat back pain efficiently and effectively.

– Tracy Maltz, Director of outpatient physical therapy at NewYork-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine

This question was answered during the episode of Spine Time called “Physical Therapy and Your Back: What Works and What Does Not?” A recording of this webinar, held on July 14, 2021, is available on YouTube.

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See more Ask a Spine Doctor questions and answers here.