Back pain


For those of you who have loved ones living with or near you that you help on a daily basis, or for those of you who are medically trained caregivers, THIS IS FOR YOU. Caregivers have a significantly larger risk of injury that do most professions, and a larger incidence of stress-related medical complications, such as high blood pressure and cardiac dysrhythmias. We, here at Champion, understand the physical and emotional toll your job has on you - and we, with the help of the APTA, are here to help. Below is a link provided by the APTA to help people like you thrive in your career. 


Lisa Leach, PT, DPT, demonstrates techniques to keep caregivers and those that they care for safe in a variety of environments.

For more information, please visit us at 


Sciatica is one of the most common diagnoses that we see in physical therapy. But what exactly is sciatica and how do physical therapists treat this complex diagnosis? The simple answer is the treatment is all dictated by the source.

Generally, Sciatica is a term that is commonly used to describe pain, weakness, numbness, or tingling that radiates down the back of the leg. Typically, the symptoms follow the distribution of the sciatic nerve, but there can be some confusion as to the source of the pain especially when the patient’s symptoms are referred. Our job as PTs is to determine the source of the nerve irritation or referral origin and treat it accordingly. This is often accomplished with a thorough musculoskeletal exam and typically without the need for costly medical imaging. Alongside misalignment caused as a result from weak musculature of the hip, below are the most common causes of sciatica seen in PT and how we typically treat them.

1. Disc Herniation:

The most common source of sciatica is pressure on the sciatic nerve from a herniation or protrusion of a spinal disc. This pressure on the nerve can create an irritation and inflammatory response causing symptoms to radiate down the leg following the path of the nerve that is compressed.

What can physical therapy do to help patients with sciatica caused by a disc herniation?

  • Studies have shown that patients respond well to repetitive lumbar range of motion in improving sciatica symptoms related to lumbar disc herniation. Typically the direction that most patients report relief of their symptoms is lumbar extension. However, a thorough physical therapy assessment will help decide a patient’s specific “directional preference”.
  • Core stabilization exercises in conjunction with lumbar range of motion are also effective at reducing sciatica symptoms. PTs tend to focus on strengthening the transversus abdominis and gluteal muscles in both static and dynamic activities.
  • Patient education is probably the most important component of the rehab of disc herniation. Patients are educated on proper sitting and standing postures as well as proper body mechanics with lifting activities to avoid causing further disc herniation.

2. Stenosis:

Narrowing of the space where the spinal cord or nerve roots exit the spinal canal is called stenosis. If the space is narrowed, that can create pressure on the cord or the nerves causing pain to radiate down the leg.

Stenosis is typically seen in a condition called degenerative disc disease. Our discs are located between the bony vertebrates and over time they can start to lose some of their height. This loss of height causes the narrowing of space seen in stenosis.

Another cause of stenosis is tiny little bone spurs called osteophytes that can form in the spinal cord or nerve root space.

What can physical therapy do to help patients with sciatica caused by stenosis?

  • Our goal in PT is typically to help improve ROM in the lumbar spine to help open up the narrowed space. Patients with stenosis often respond well to lumbar flexion or bending exercises, which is in contrast to the lumbar extension exercises often seen in disc herniation. However, a thorough physical therapy exam will help determine the appropriate stretches/range of motion exercises.
  • As with disc herniation, core stabilization and posture/movement retraining are important for patients with sciatica caused by stenosis.
  • Functional dry needling (i.e. Trigger point dry needling) is also very effective for patients with lumbar stenosis. By using tiny, hair thin needles, we can quickly decrease the muscle tightness of spinal muscles, resulting in decreased compression of the lumbar vertebrae. We will discuss dry needling more in the last section.

3. Piriformis Syndrome:

Deep in your buttock/gluts is a muscle that runs diagonally from the outside of your hip to the lowest part of your spine. This muscle, called the piriformis, can get short and tight or even be in spasm. In 85% of the population, the sciatic nerve runs just beneath the piriformis and in the other 15% it runs through the muscle. The sciatic nerve can become compressed and irritated when the piriformis is taught or in spasm creating symptoms of sciatica down the back of the leg.

What can physical therapy do to help patients with sciatica caused by piriformis syndrome?

  • Typically, a physical therapist will prescribe a thorough home exercise program that includes stretches for the piriformis, hamstrings, and glute muscles (see linked video for example of a piriformis stretch).
  • Sciatic nerve glides/flossing can be effective at getting the sciatic nerve moving again if it is trapped by the piriformis, especially in conjunction with the stretches above (see linked video for example of a sciatic nerve glide).
  • A common theme with all of the causes of sciatica is core stabilization. Core and glute strengthening exercises will help to reduce the demands put on the piriformis muscle with daily and recreational activities (see linked video for an example of a core exercise).
  • Trigger point dry needling has also been found to be very effective at quickly reducing the tension of the piriformis.


1. Pain is output from the brain. While we used to believe that pain originated within the tissues of our body, we now understand that pain does not exist until the brain determines it does. The brain uses a virtual “road map” to direct an output of pain to tissues that it suspects may be in danger. This process acts as a means of communication between the brain and the tissues of the body, to serve as a defense against possible injury or disease.

2. The degree of injury does not always equal the degree of pain. Research has demonstrated that we all experience pain in individual ways. While some of us experience major injuries with little pain, others experience minor injuries with a lot of pain (think of a paper cut).

3. Despite what diagnostic imaging (MRIs, x-rays, CT scans) shows us, the finding may not be the cause of your pain. A study performed on individuals 60 years or older who had no symptoms of low back pain found that 36% had a herniated disc, 21% had spinal stenosis, and more than 90% had a degenerated or bulging disc, upon diagnostic imaging.

4. Psychological factors, such as depression and anxiety, can make your pain worse. Pain can be influenced by many different factors, such as psychological conditions. A recent study in the Journal of Pain showed that psychological variables that existed prior to a total knee replacement were related to a patient's experience of long-term pain following the operation.

5. Your social environment may influence your perception of pain. Many patients state their pain increases when they are at work or in a stressful situation. Pain messages can be generated when an individual is in an environment or situation that the brain interprets as unsafe. It is a fundamental form of self-protection.

6. Understanding pain through education may reduce your need for care. A large study conducted with military personnel demonstrated that those who were given a 45-minute educational session about pain sought care for low back pain less than their counterparts.

7. Our brains can be tricked into developing pain in prosthetic limbs. Studies have shown that our brains can be tricked into developing a "referred" sensation in a limb that has been amputated, causing a feeling of pain that seems to come from the prosthetic limb – or from the "phantom" limb. The sensation is generated by the association of the brain's perception of what the body is from birth (whole and complete) and what it currently is (post-amputation).

8. The ability to determine left from right may be altered when you experience pain. Networks within the brain that assist you in determining left from right can be affected when you experience severe pain. If you have been experiencing pain, and have noticed your sense of direction is a bit off, it may be because a "roadmap" within the brain that details a path to each part of the body may be a bit "smudged." (This is a term we use to describe a part of the brain's virtual roadmap that isn’t clear. Imagine spilling ink onto part of a roadmap and then trying to use that map to get to your destination.)

9. There is no way of knowing whether you have a high tolerance for pain or not. Science has yet to determine whether we all experience pain in the same way. While some people claim to have a "high tolerance" for pain, there is no accurate way to measure or compare pain tolerance among individuals. While some tools exist to measure how much force you can resist before experiencing pain, it can’t be determined what your pain "feels like."


Patients who receive care from self-referring physicians for the treatment of low back pain (LBP) are more likely to be referred for some form of physical therapy, but that's just part of the story. According to newly published research, LBP patients who are self-referred receive fewer physical therapy visits and more ineffective passive modalities than patients who aren't self-referred—and all at a higher overall cost. The state of Kansas accepts self-referral for physical therapy! 

In the study, researchers analyzed 158,151 LBP episodes in private health insurance claims records for nonelderly individuals enrolled in plans offered by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas. They found that physicians who "self-referred"—that is, referred their patients to a business with which they have a financial relationship—referred 26% of their patients to physical therapy. That rate was 16 percentage points higher than among non-self-referrals. Overall physical therapy was referred at a rate of 14%. 

But the higher rate of referrals doesn't tell the whole story, according to the study's authors, who analyzed what happened next—and how much it wound up costing. Results of the study were e-published ahead of print in the Forum for Health Economics and Policy (abstract only available for free). 

What they found was that the self-referred patients received, on average, 2 fewer physical therapy visits and 10 fewer 15-minute physical therapy service units compared with treatments by providers who did not self-refer. And when self-referred patients did receive physical therapy, they were treated differently from their non-self-referred counterparts, with an increased use of passive modalities such as hot and cold packs, mechanical traction, ultrasound, and electrical stimulation—approaches authors describe as "ineffective" in treatment of LBP.

Looking more closely at Healthcare Common Procedure Coding System (HCPCS) records, authors found that about 46% of physical therapy services rendered during non-self-referred episodes included individualized exercises to develop strength, endurance, range of motion, and flexibility, compared with a 31.5% rate among the self-referred episodes. Significant differences were also found in the use of dynamic activities designed to improve function, which occurred at a 6.7% rate for non-self-referred episodes but in only 4.2% of the self-referred episodes. Conversely, electrical stimulation accounted for almost 9% of the physical therapy services in self-referring episodes. Among the non-self-referred episodes, use of that passive modality was 1.4%.

Authors write that the use of exercise and dynamic activities "implies that [LBP] patients treated by non self-referring providers received skilled one-on-one care," and that "patients seen by self-referring providers received higher proportions of passive treatments." According to the authors, these passive treatments "can be easily performed by non physical therapists (medical assistants or technologists) in physicians' offices," and billed as physical therapy services under the "incident to" rule.

And what about overall cost? It turns out that fewer physical therapy sessions and a greater use of passive modalities doesn't wind up saving money—in fact, the LBP episodes addressed through self-referral averaged $889 in insurer-allowed costs, compared with $602 for non-self-referred episodes—a 49% difference. As for spending on individual physical therapy services, self-referral episodes averaged costs that were double non-self-referrals—an average of $144 for the self-referring provider, compared with $73 for the non-self-referring provider.

Results of the study not only inform physical therapist practice, but they help to clarify issues that have been at the heart of a policy debate over the reach of the Stark law, a law intended to prohibit referrals to a business that has a financial relationship with the referring provider under Medicare. That prohibition applies to most in-office ancillary services, but there a few exceptions: physical therapy is one of them. APTA has made elimination of these exceptions one of its public policy priorities.

The new study also fills in some of the gaps left in a 2014 report from the US General Accountability Office (GAO), which looked at self-referral for physical therapy across all health conditions under Medicare. That report found a higher rate of referral to physical therapy (and fewer physical therapist services received) among self-referred cases, but was limited in its scope. Authors of the new study cite a number of "deficiencies" in the report, including its focus only on elderly patients, and the lack of any analysis of the types and quality of physical therapist services rendered.

“The results of this study further confirm what APTA has firmly believed for years now,” said APTA President Sharon L. Dunn, PT, PhD, OCS, in an APTA news release. “Referral for profit leads to health care practices that benefit the provider and remove the focus from where it should be; the patient. APTA has long advocated for the elimination of referral for profit for physical therapist services from health care.” 

For their part, the study's authors keep the focus on the ways in which the quality of physical therapy services differ between self-referred and non-self-referred episodes.

"An important contribution of this study is the finding that the composition of physical therapy services rendered to [LBP] differs between self-referring and non self-referring practices," authors write. "The care provided by independent therapists is comprised of more active, hands on treatments which appear to be appropriate in light of empirical evidence showing that passive procedures are not effective treatments for LBP."

The study was funded in part by the Foundation for Physical Therapy and the National Institute on Aging.


Attached above is a wonderful link provided by the APTA, or the American Physical Therapy Association, for women just like you to help prevent/manage back pain during pregnancy! Let us know what you think! 


Almost everyone will experience back pain at some point in their lives. Back pain varies from one person to the next. It can range from mild to severe, and can be acute or chronic, depending on the cause.

Preventing all back pain may not be possible. We cannot avoid the normal wear and tear on our spines that goes along with aging. There are, however, things we can do to lessen the impact of low back problems and adjust aspects of our daily routine to better prevent acute injuries from occurring. 

Having a healthy lifestyle is the first way to prevent back pain. 

  • Exercise

Combine exercise, like walking or swimming, with specific core-strengthening exercises to keep the muscles in your back and abdomen strong and flexible.

  • Weight

Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight puts added pressure on your spine and lower back.  Quick weight gain without adjusting your daily exercise regime will usually cause problems in the low back, as the muscles require time to strengthen as your weight increases (body builders, pregnancy, etc.)

  • Avoid Smoking

Both the smoke and the nicotine cause your bones, and more specifically, your spine to age faster than normal.  Smoking is a known catalyst of osteoporosis, which is will cause weakening of the vertebrae. 

  • Proper Posture

Good posture is important to avoiding low back problems. How you stand, sit, and lift things has an increasing effect on your spine health.

  • Drink Plenty of Water

Water is required for healthy function in every cell of the human body.  The spine, like all other joints, requires lubricant to allow pain-free movement. Drinking enough water each day can increase your body's natural lubricant production. 

Guidelines for Proper Lifting

  • Plan ahead what you want to do and do not be in a hurry.
  • Position yourself close to the object you want to lift.
  • Separate your feet shoulder-width apart to give yourself a solid base of support.
  • Bend at the knees.
  • Tighten your stomach muscles.
  • Lift with your leg muscles as you stand up.
  • If an object is too heavy or is an awkward shape, do not try to lift it by yourself. Get help. 

Picking Up a Light Object

To lift a very light object from the floor, such as a piece of paper, lean over the object, slightly bend one knee and extend the other leg behind you. Hold on to a nearby chair or table for support as you reach down to the object, as necessary.

Picking Up a Heavy Object

Whether you are lifting a heavy laundry basket or a heavy box in your garage, remember to get close to the object, bend at the knees, and lift with your leg muscles. Do not bend at your waist.

When lifting luggage, stand alongside of the luggage, bend at your knees, grasp the handle and straighten up.  Do your best to keep your stomach tight while lifting the object.  This anatomical act of checks-and-balances will allow your core to split the opposing force between both sides of the body, and therefore, lessening the stress on the back, alone.  The checks-and-balances system includes the quadriceps and hamstrings, the biceps and triceps; or in other words, muscles that pull the body in the opposite direction from the other. 

Holding An Object

While you are holding the object, keep your knees slightly bent to maintain your balance. If you have to move the object to one side, avoid twisting your body or leaning backward. Point your toes in the direction you want to move and pivot in that direction. Keep the object close to you when moving, and again, keeping your stomach tight will lessen the stress on the low back and naturally force you to keep from leaning backward. 

Placing an Object on a Shelf

If you must place an object on a shelf, move as close as possible to the shelf. Spread your feet in a wide stance, positioning one foot in front of the other to give you a solid base of support. Do not lean forward and do not fully extend your arms while holding the object in your hands.

If the shelf is chest high, move close to the shelf and place your feet apart and one foot forward. Lift the object chest high, keep your elbows at your side and position your hands so you can push the object up and on to the shelf. Remember to tighten your stomach muscles before lifting.

Supporting Your Back While Sitting

When sitting, keep your back in a normal, slightly arched position. Make sure your chair supports your lower back. Keep your head and shoulders erect. Make sure your working surface is at the proper height so you don't have to lean forward. Once an hour, if possible, stand, and stretch. Place your hands on your lower back and gently arch backward.

Move Often

Allow yourself plenty of opportunities to move and stretch.  The recommended break time for students is 5 minutes for every 30 minutes studying, or 10 minutes for every 60 minutes.  It's proven to improve cognitive function and memory, as well as relieve tension in the muscles of the body. Think about it - how many times have you been "in the zone" writing a letter or typing an email, and when you press that send button, you feel your shoulders, neck, and back relax?  That tension over time will cause tight muscles.  When the muscles are tight, they pull on the bones.  When they pull on the bones so much, they can move the bones slightly out of place - but slightly is enough to feel it. Some companies are now allowing employees to inquire about a standing desk - one that can raise if you'd prefer to stand for part of your day. Make inquiries with your HR department if this interests you!

Need Help Adjusting?

 If you suffer from acute or chronic back pain, talk to your doctor about the possibility of starting physical therapy with us at Champion Performance and Physical Therapy. If some of these qualities sound oh-too-familiar and think you could use some overall strengthening exercises for your core to simply improve your quality of life, you are welcome to contact us and we'll see if you are eligible to come in we can see if you qualify to come in without a prescription from your doctor for a simple evaluation and exercise plan.