Physical Therapy for Back Pain

What to Know about Physical Therapy for Back Pain

Physical therapy is a conservative, but scientifically proven type of treatment for back pain. Its goals include:

• The reduction of spastic muscles

• Improved mobility

• Restore function of the muscles, joints, tendons and ligaments

• Improve posture

How to Find A Physical Therapist

In some states, you can go to a physical therapist for back pain on your own without a doctor’s referral; in other states the only way you will get treatment is with a referral.

Physical therapists work under the care of a physician. They usually specialize in different types of treatment so it’s important to ask the physical therapist these questions prior to scheduling a series of appointments:

  1. What type of practice do you specialize in? Low back? Neck? Sciatica? Stroke patients? Surgery rehabilitaton?
  2. How long have you been working with patients?
  3. What school did you go to? (You are looking for a 4-year degree in physical therapy, not some other degree like biology)
  4. What type of modalities do you use?
  5. What type of success have you had with patients with similar conditions?

How Does A Physical Therapist Do His Job?

Some of the modalities that physical therapists use are included below in this list:

Heat/Cold Treatments

Heat is used to relax muscles. It is usually in the form of hot packs laid on the skin on top of towels. Cold packs are used similarly. Cold sprays may also be used. Cold reduces inflammation and slows down pain signals, which helps a lot in those with back pain.

Electrical Stimulation

This modality is the application of certain waveforms and amplitudes of electric current to spastic muscles that don’t remember how to relax. After awhile, the muscle that is spasmatic tires out and stops causing pain.

Electrical stimulation can also be used on muscles that have not been used for awhile. The modality will cause them to contract again. They will also regain their strength and remember what it’s like to contract again with electrical stimulation.

TENS (Transcutaneous Nerve Stimulation)

This is the application of electricity to nerves, not muscles. Its purpose is the decrease of pain. A TENS unit consists of a black box with wires that lead to the pads placed on certain muscles. The unit can sometimes hook onto a belt. The current applied to the body feels like tingling sensations or light buzzing. TENS treatments are usually about 10-20 minutes long.


An ultrasound device usually looks like an old-fashioned telephone receiver. It generates sound waves in the healing range that penetrate deep into the tissues. The results are usually relaxed muscles, especially spastic ones, increased circulation, increased metabolic activities in the tissues, and decreased inflammation.

All the methods that a physical therapist uses are pain-reducing modalities.

What’s the difference between a physical therapist and a chiropractor?