Whether you’re suffering from a nagging ache or severe pain, finding alternatives that are safe and actually work is the goal for those of us suffering from chronic pain. Too many offer relief without the results. Could back braces be the answer?
Back brace proponents claim they offer additional support and even help to stabilize and protect painful areas. Others are concerned they can actual contribute to pain by causing core muscles to atrophy, potentially making the back more susceptible to injury. Which is true?
Conditions That May Benefit from Bracing
According to Dr. Saurabh Dang, who specializes in spine health, people that experience the following conditions may find some relief from wearing a brace:
- Osteoarthritis: A back brace may help decrease pain by reducing pressure on the areas of arthritis and degenerative changes that hurt with everyday movement.
- Vertebral compression fractures. Braces may decrease motion at the fracture or affected vertebral level, and reduce pressure on the spinal column.
- Degenerative disc disease/lumbar herniated disc. When a spinal disc breaks down and/or herniates, a rigid or semi-rigid back brace may help to stabilize, reduce movement at the affected spinal segment and lessen the weight the disc feels.
- Spinal stenosis. Bracing is thought to reduce pressure on and limit motions in the lower spine that can cause nerve root irritation and radicular pain. In some cases, a brace can help adjust posture or shift weight to the abdomen thereby unloading pressure from the spine.
- Muscle tension and strain. A back brace may help alleviate muscle tension by reducing pressure on the spine, and reducing the amount of strength needed in the muscles to support the spinal column. Additionally, heat from the brace can help relax tense muscles, contributing to pain relief. But back braces for muscle injury or weakness is not recommended for longer than 2 to 4 days.
Tips on how to use a brace safely
- Get the right fit. Finding a back brace that properly fits is crucial for comfort and support. While most braces are adjustable to contour to a variety of shapes and sizes, make sure yours fits before using it.
- Don’t overuse your brace. I’m not an advocate of wearing a back brace for more than a few hours a day or continuously for more than two weeks. This may create a situation where your muscles become reliant on the brace. Make sure you follow your provider’s direction for mobilizing stretching and strengthening your back daily. If daily use is required, talk to your provider.
- Don’t rely on the brace. Wearing a brace is only one of the steps necessary for strengthening the core muscles that support our spine. Physical therapy, stretching, yoga, and other exercises are all integral to a well-rounded pain regime program.
- It’s not a quick fix. A brace is not a way to perform activities that exceed your physical limitations.
- Not meant for long-term relief. Back braces are typically recommended on a short-term basis. Although controversial, some studies did show a concern for becoming dependent on them, which then contributed to muscle atrophy that ultimately weakened the back, increased the chance of injury, and worsened pain.
- Remind us to stay safe. In some cases it can be used to keep us from performing activities we shouldn’t or remind us to use proper techniques when we are doing something that puts us at risk. Unfortunately it can also do the opposite and make us feel invincible. So use safely.
- Improve posture. Our spine should be in an upright position, with shoulders back, chest up, and our core tucked in. But how many of us sit and stand in this position? Slouching over and curving our spine not only results in bad posture but severe back pain. Braces can help correct this.
- Always clear with your healthcare provider first.
In the end, most studies showed using a back brace short-term can provide relief. While these devices won’t cure the underlying condition, they are simple to use, relatively inexpensive and an alternative to medications. They can help to support the lower back and better distribute weight to encompass the abdomen, hips, and legs that daily activities impact so the back is affected less. Used properly, under the guidance of your healthcare provider, it may be another tool to lessening pain.