In certain cases, people with low back pain (also called lumbar back pain) are asked to wear a back brace. Braces may be uncomfortable or inconvenient, but they serve an important purpose. Lumbar braces support the low back and are important aids to stabilize or immobilize the lower back region following injury or surgery.
About Lumbar Braces
Low back braces are external devices that support the spine’s muscular and bony structures.
In the past, many spine patients were required to wear heavy plaster casts. Fortunately, patients who must wear braces today benefit from lighter weight plastic braces that have been designed with the patient’s comfort in mind. Lumbar braces are categorized as soft or rigid. Soft elastic type braces provide muscular support while allowing movement. Rigid braces are used to restrict movement.
A soft lumbar corset is primarily used to provide low back muscular support. A lumbar corset may be used for individuals who have extensive arthritis or mild lumbar instability. Many times, additional muscular support provides low back pain relief. The corset may also act as a reminder to avoid excessive low back motion and may help encourage proper body mechanics, such as good posture.
Constant use of a soft lumbar corset might actually weaken the lumbar muscles, so it is generally recommended to wear the corset in a task specific manner. When engaged in activities that may potentially place your back at risk, the lumbar corset should be worn. After the at-risk activity, the brace should be removed.
Use of such a brace should also be done in conjunction with a lumbar-strengthening exercise program. Ideally, the lumbar-strengthening exercise program will increase muscle strength, which makes the brace unnecessary. Unfortunately, such a program takes many months to have this effect. The brace can help support the spine until muscle strength can do the job.
The lumbar corset is also used after most lumbar spinal surgeries to provide additional low back support, thus preventing muscles from rapidly fatiguing during recovery. The brace also offers that gentle reminder that activities and motion must be limited for healing to occur.
The purpose of this brace is not complete immobilization. Patients should wear the lumbar brace as they see fit and take it off or stop using it when it no longer helps. Typically, patients find the lumbar brace helpful in the first six weeks after surgery and use it less and less after that period. Immediately after surgery, most physicians recommend that patients wear the brace whenever they are out of bed for more than 15 minutes. As the patient regains strength, the lumbar brace is worn less and less often.
A rigid brace is used when, despite surgical correction (or in place of surgical correction), spinal stability has not been fully achieved. For example, some types of spinal fractures can be managed without surgery. Such fractures have their own inherent stability. The brace provides additional immobilization, which should safely allow the fracture to heal with a minimal risk of further injury. Under these circumstances, this brace must be worn for approximately three months whenever the patient is out of bed.
A rigid brace may also be needed for patients with an unstable spine. After undergoing a very complex spinal surgery, and despite use of internal fixation, the spine may not be satisfactorily stabilized. The reason for this may have to do with the severity of the instability, lack of bone quality, location of the surgery, or nature of the deformity. A rigid brace is used for immobilization and support. It should be worn whenever the patient is out of bed for more than 10 minutes. This brace will be worn for approximately three months after surgery. The surgeon is the best source of information as to bracing following spinal surgery.
Braces can be an essential component to the successful treatment of certain spinal disorders. Lumbar braces may be cumbersome, uncomfortable, or restrictive, but they can promote healing and recovery. The use of lumbar braces may be task specific, occasional, or constant, depending on the type of spinal problem. Many patients have derived considerable benefit from lumbar braces following injury or surgery to the lower back.