Low back pain is the second most common symptom Americans cite as the reason they visit their health care providers every year. About 50 percent of Americans experience low back pain symptoms annually, and as many as 85 percent will experience some form of low back pain in their lifetime.
In the U.S., the peak age for back pain is between 25 and 45 — in fact, it’s the number one cause of disability for people under 45. Americans spent $33.4 billion in 2008 treating the condition, not counting the estimated $66.6 billion lost in wages and decreased productivity. Many people turn to back support belts as an option to prevent or alleviate their pain.
Custom or Off-the-Rack
The two main forms of back support belts are: custom-fit and flexible-fit. If you’ve had back surgery or suffer from adolescent scoliosis, your spinal physician may order a back support that’s molded to your body with heat–treated plastics. Since these devices fit your specific contours, they provide widespread spine stabilization for a specific period of time.
The neoprene belts found in pharmacies or sporting goods stores, on the other hand, are more common. If you regularly do heavy lifting on the job, your employer may encourage you to wear one. While they may help prevent back pain, they won’t help you heal. If you have back issues already, talk to your doctor or physical therapist about the best model for your needs.
Benefits of Using Back Support Belts
The research regarding support belts isn’t conclusive. But you’ll likely experience the benefits when you wear one properly, according to your doctor’s instructions. Some issues that back support belts target include:
- Correcting deformity. Due to congenital issues or after back surgery, braces can correct a deformity or facilitate healing.
- Limiting movement. After an initial low-back injury, limiting your spinal movement is helpful because it allows your injury to heal on its own by relieving excessive demand on the muscles.
- Stabilizing the back. Some users report that supporting their spine and abdomen relieves pain and improves posture.
- Providing support. Back support belt wearers state that during periods of episodic pain, they get relief with a belt when rising from sitting to standing or during other transitional movements.
- Facilitating a return to work. After an injury, a support belt can make your transition back to work easier to manage.
- Easing pain. Some belts have massaging and heating elements that relieve back stress. Additionally, just wearing a belt may provide a placebo effect of pain relief.
When support belts aren’t properly fitted or maintained, you run the risk of creating more problems than you started with. Issues from improper belt use include:
- Skin lesions. Improperly fitting belts, such as those marked one-size-fits-all, can cause skin irritation and lesions.
- Muscle atrophy. Long-term use of back support belts can lead to muscle atrophy, setting up your spine for injury later.
- Transfer of the load to other muscles. Restricting motion for one part of the back requires other muscles to bear the load, which can result in injury to those muscles.
- Gastro-intestinal disorders. Some belt wearers said that the compression of their abdomen resulted in digestive issues.
- Higher blood pressure. The compression of your muscles can also increase your blood pressure and resting heart rate.
Depending on your condition, the short-term use of a back support belt may be beneficial, especially if used in conjunction with other forms of treatment like physical therapy. Your physician likely won’t recommend long-term or preventative use. To avoid additional back problems, talk to your spine specialist at the Southeastern Spine Institute about whether a belt is right for you.