31 million Americans experience low back pain at any given time. It is the number one cause of disability worldwide. Also, low back pain is one of the most common reasons for someone to miss work and the second most common reason for someone to go to the doctors. Really? That many people have back pain? It is that common for them to go to their primary care doctor for it? Why are they not coming to physical therapy first? That’s a topic for another day, but seriously low back pain is a huge issue that a lot of us deal with on a daily basis. I see it first hand every day as I treat patients frequently with this problem. Some are strains, disc herniations, fusions, fractures and just general arthritis symptoms. It’s inevitable that I will get the question: “Do you think a back brace will help me?” “My friend’s brother has worn a brace for years and says he thinks I need one.” So I decided to share my opinions and some general facts about back braces to hopefully help you make that decision.
What is the back brace being used for? This should be the first question anyone should ask. The type of injury or problem that you are having will be a key factor whether you will benefit from a brace or not. When do you plan on wearing it? Is this something that you are planning on wearing all day? Do you want to use it while you are doing house work or working out at the gym? Are you planning on wearing it while you sit? These are some key questions that you need to focus on in order to see if this is right for you.
In my opinion, I never recommend for a patient to wear a back brace. This is usually what I tell them. I don’t recommend that you get a back brace. I feel you would not benefit from it and here is why. Your back is already vulnerable in the fact that you are injured and you are in pain. Your muscles are not working to their full potential and are weak. If you were to put a brace on, chances are that you would get some relief initially, but you would only be hurting yourself. Think about it this way, once you put that brace on your muscles are going to say to themselves, I don’t have to work as hard as I was before because I have this trusty brace doing most of the work. So as your muscles decide to take a nap they are also shrinking which is called atrophy. Now they are not as strong as they were before. After using this brace for the past several weeks you start to feel a bit better. You think, “Hey I feel pretty good let’s try going without the brace today.” Within 30 minutes you feel worse than you did before. And now you put the brace back on because that’s the only way it feels better. See, the brace is doing most if not all of the work for your core and those muscle decided that they wanted to be lazy and not work. Sure it helped take away your pain temporarily, but in turn it was hurting you in the long run.
Now, here is when I feel you can and should wear a brace.
When you are weight lifting or power lifting: weight lifters have been using belts and back braces for years. These are only used for a very short period of time and are taken off so your back is only being assisted for a short amount of time.
When your job requires you to lift a lot throughout the day: I see Home Depot workers wearing braces all the time. And as soon as they are done with the lift they take of the brace. This is fine because you are not allowing the brace to carry the load all day long.
Scoliosis: This type of brace is used to stop the progression of Idiopathic Scoliosis. This brace must be used in order to prevent the curvature from getting any worse.
It can be very confusing a to when you should or should not wear a back brace. I suggest that you take into account what you are trying to use it for and ask your Physical Therapist or other licensed health care provider. Braces can be a life saver, but they can also leave you worse than when you started.