A back brace or support can provide considerable benefits by relieving back pain (especially lower back pain), a condition suffered by large numbers of people. Back braces are sometimes also called back splints.
Lower back pain is a significant causal contributor to missed work days. According to Arthritis and Rheumatism, a journal of the American College of Rheumatology, approximately 40% of individuals experience this pain at some point in their lives. The same journal also reports that between 9% and 12% of individuals are experiencing lower back pain at any given time. Back pain can also inhibit the performance of many functions that are widely taken for granted, such as gardening, sports or occupational activities.
In addition to helping to relieve existing back pain, back braces can also proactively prevent back injuries among those who routinely perform functions like lifting heavy loads. Furthermore, a back support brace (or splint) can also correct posture and/or take pressure off the lumbar spine when standing or sitting.
What Type Of Back Brace Do I Need?
In general, there are 2 main categories of back brace or splint in the market today – those for the upper back and those for the lower back (or lumbar spine region).
Lower Back Braces
Lower back braces are also called lumbar belts or back belts. They are used widely in industries that require plenty of lifting of heavy loads, such as household moving and warehouse maintenance. You will also find them in widespread use by athletes in sports like weightlifting.These braces work by reducing muscle tension and mitigating pressure on the lumbar spine. Some of them also provide soothing warmth that aids blood circulation through the lower back area (thereby speeding recovery from injuries like back sprains) and also helps to relieve pain.
Back braces for the lower back also remind the individual to keep his or her spine as straight as possible when lifting (see image on the left). This in turn forces the weight of the load to be borne by the legs (particularly the hamstring muscles of the upper leg) and the core muscles. The larger leg and core muscles are much better equipped to handle these loads without risk of injury. As a result, lower back braces reduce the risk of injuries such as back sprains that can arise from incorrect lifting technique.
Lower back braces can be further categorized based on their rigidity or pliability. In general, the more rigid the back brace, the more support it provides (and therefore the greater the pain relief). At the same time, a more flexible or pliable lower back support brace may be a better choice for an individual with a minor back injury. It may also be more suited to someone who isn’t injured but is actually looking to prevent injury while performing risky activities (such as lifting heavy weights).
Braces worn on the upper back area aim to improve posture and reduce the impact of heavy weights on the lower spine. In this case, however, the heavy weight is that of the upper body and head. Other names for this type of back splint are “clavicle brace” and “posture brace“.
Many individuals fail to maintain proper posture while standing or sitting. Instead of maintaining a normal moderate inward curvature of the lower spine (known as lordosis) they actually tend to hunch their shoulders forward (see image on the left). This results in too much of the weight of the upper body being placed on the lower spine. After a while, this pressure results in lower back pain.
An upper back brace helps to correct this problem by gently reminding the patient to keep his or her shoulders upright and the upper back straight. This has the effect of introducing a small amount of curvature in the lower spine, which is what nature intended. The result is less pressure on the lower back and a reduced risk of developing lower back pain over time.
Other Factors To Consider When Choosing A Back Brace
In choosing the right back support brace for the patient, there are some other factors to take into account:
How bulky is the brace? Is it intended to be worn over or under clothing?
How breathable is the back brace? In general, the better back supports are made of breathable materials that preserve natural body temperature. This results in improved wearing comfort, especially over long periods.
The patient will be wearing the back support next to the skin, or during intense physical activity. If so, he or she should understand how to clean and maintain it to preserve its effectiveness.
As with most orthopedic supports, sizing is critical. Be careful to precisely follow the sizing chart/instructions for your back splint. This will help you to get the most benefit from its use.