Lower back pain (or low back pain) is one of the most widely experienced ailments and is a leading contributor to missed workdays. In many cases, people start experiencing back pain when they are only in their 30s and their attacks can increase as they age. The resulting restriction of mobility can significantly impair your quality of life. Although a painful back can sometimes improve without any treatment, it is sometimes necessary to take steps to ease this condition. In this text, we will examine the main causes of low back pain and suggest treatments for this extremely common condition.
- 1 Symptoms
- 2 What Causes Lower Back Pain?
- 3 Diagnosis & Treatment Of Lower Back Pain
- 3.1 Diagnosis
- 3.2 Treating Your Lower Back Pain
- 3.2.1 Heat Treatments
- 3.2.2 Yoga & Back Stretches
- 3.2.3 Massage Therapy
- 3.2.4 Topical Analgesics & Other Pain Relief Medications
- 3.2.5 Physical Therapy & Back Strengthening Exercises
- 3.2.6 Use A Back Brace For Improved Posture & Greater Lumbar Support
- 3.2.7 Reduce Body Weight To Ease Low Back Pain
- 3.2.8 Pay Attention To Your Lifting Technique
- 3.2.9 Steroid Injections & Back Surgery
The symptoms of low back pain can be anything between a dull ache and a sharp shooting or stabbing sensation. In severe cases, you may also experience difficulty moving or even just standing straight.
Lower back pain may be either an acute or chronic condition. Acute cases appear suddenly and you can usually link them to a specific event such as an injury during sports or while lifting heavy weights or loads. If you experience back pain after a fall or other injury, you should consult with your doctor to ascertain the severity of the condition. Warning signs of a particularly severe case that may require medical help include difficulty controlling your bladder or bowel. Other symptoms that can be warnings of a severe injury include groin numbness, weakness in the legs, fever and pain, particularly when coughing or urinating. These are all possible indications of serious problems that should prompt you to consult a doctor.
If your discomfort lasts for more than 3 months, doctors generally consider it to be a chronic case.
Even if you do not have any of the above aggravating symptoms, lower back pain can still be a serious problem. For example, if you also have experienced unintentional weight loss or have a history of cancer, you should seek medical advice. You should also seek medical assistance if you are using steroids , have a compromised immune system or a history of drug use. If your pain increases despite rest, you should also consult your doctor.
What Causes Lower Back Pain?
Low back pain can have many possible causes, including spinal injuries, lifestyle or occupational factors and poor posture. These are discussed in greater detail below.
- Your spine has discs located between the spinal vertebrae and acting as shock absorbers, cushioning the impact of walking and running, for example. As they age, these discs can rupture of bulge and cause severe pain as they press on the nerve roots of your spine. This is referred to as a herniated disc problem.
- Bulging or ruptured vertebral discs can also press on the sciatic nerve located in the lower back and formed from the junction of 5 smaller nerves. This type of lower back pain is known as sciatica. A telltale symptom of sciatica is pain that shoots or runs from your buttock down one leg (see illustration on the right);
- With some individuals, the space around the spinal cord can narrow as they age, leading to spinal stenosis. It can put pressure on the spinal nerves and lead to back pain;
- Spondylitis is a chronic condition that leads to pain and stiffness in the back. It is a result of severe inflammation of your spinal joints;
- Athletes in certain sports can suffer from low back pain due to conditions such as spondylolysis. Examples of these sports include baseball and cricket. You can read more about how this can happen to baseball batters and how to treat and/or avoid them here. For similar information relating to cricketers, please see here.
- Back pain can also be the result of twisting of the spine due to continual lifting or pulling at heavy objects, possibly due to the requirements of your job. In some cases, this type of activity can lead to a back strain.
Lifestyle Or Occupational Factors
- Back pain can be caused by carrying a heavy backpack or purse over your shoulder for prolonged periods. Although your shoulder is part of your upper back, your lower back has to support the entire weight of your upper back and, indeed, your entire upper body. So that heavy backpack or purse can overstress your lower back. This is especially the case when you carry this load on a daily basis.
- Being overweight can place undue pressure on your lower back (in the same way as carrying a heavy load on your shoulders) and can lead to lower back pain;
- Overworking at the gym or on the sports field can lead to lower back pain. This is especially true if you do a sedentary job most of the day and then subject your body to significant stresses at the gym or on the golf course at the end of the day or during the weekend.
Sometimes your back pain can be related to poor posture. Some people have to spend most of the day in a seated position and can experience back pain as a result. This is especially the case if you are not using an ergonomically designed chair or if you tend to slouch when seated. Improving your posture is key here. Try to choose a chair that provides good lumbar support for your lower back. Also, keep your shoulders back when seated and, if possible, rest your feet on a low stool to keep yourself from leaning forward too much.
A good back support like the LP Clavic Brace or the LP Sacro Lumbar Support can be a great help with these and many other causes of low back pain. Another postural improvement that will help is trying to keep your weight evenly distributed between your feet when standing.
Diagnosis & Treatment Of Lower Back Pain
If you think your back pain may be due to a serious underlying problem, your doctor will be able to help you diagnose its specific cause. Be prepared to answer questions on the nature of the pain, when it began and any associated symptoms or chronic conditions you may have.
In rare cases, you may have to undergo an X-Ray, CT or other diagnostic scan before your doctor can identify the specific problem.
Treating Your Lower Back Pain
We now discuss the various possible approaches to treating lower back pain.
If your back pain is due to a muscle strain. it will usually improve with a couple of days of rest. However, you can ease the discomfort by using a heating pad 3-4 times daily. Warm baths and/or showers will also help to ease the pain while your back heals on its own. Heat treatments such as these will help to promote blood circulation through your back. This in turn will reduce pain and promote healing. Moist heat therapy, such as you would get by taking a warm bath or shower is even more effective at reaching deep body tissues and providing rapid pain relief. You can read more about the benefits of moist heat therapy here.
If the problem is indeed due to a muscle strain in your lower back, you should try to avoid resting in bed for more than a couple of days. There is some evidence that if you remain in bed too long with a back strain, you may end up losing muscle flexibility and tone due to inactivity. In some cases, this can actually lead to greater back pain instead of less.
Yoga & Back Stretches
Because of the many stretches included in yoga, it may actually be an effective treatment for back pain. This is especially true of chronic conditions that have lasted for 3 months or more. Conventional stretches may also be effective. If you decide to take up yoga, be sure to mention your back problems to the instructor so that, if possible, he or she can customize the program to address the issue.
You can also consider massage therapy as a treatment for your low back pain. Try to combine it with a yoga or other stretch program as noted in the previous paragraph. Even better, combine yoga and massage therapy with a physical therapy/exercise program (more below) for an effective and conservative treatment program for your lower back pain.
Topical Analgesics & Other Pain Relief Medications
Although these do not address the underlying problem, they will help to ease the pain and discomfort while other therapies like massage and yoga do their work. Topical analgesics can be effective when the problem is a back strain, and do not generally have side effects or possible addiction issues. Other over the counter medications that you may wish to consider to ease mild back pain include ibuprofen or naproxen. If your pain is more severe, you may wish to consider prescription pain killers. To repeat, these should not be considered as treatments in themselves – just as temporary means to ease the pain and discomfort while other treatments do their work.
Physical Therapy & Back Strengthening Exercises
Your low back pain may have caused you to be incapacitated for a long time. If so, you should consider physical therapy to help you get back to your normal activities with less risk of re-injuring yourself. Physical therapy exercises will usually include stretches and strength training. They may also include low impact cardio workouts that will reduce the forces reaching your back to minimize the risk of aggravating your injury. A qualified physical therapist can design a program for you that will get you back in the game with least risk of incurring another back injury.
Use A Back Brace For Improved Posture & Greater Lumbar Support
As mentioned above, there are many upper back braces that will help you to maintain proper posture by e.g. keeping your shoulders straight. By improving your posture, they help to ease lower back pain. The LP Clavic Brace is a prime example of this.
In addition, a properly designed lower back brace can provide the lumbar support you need to avoid straining your back while lifting heavy loads. They can also be useful as part of a rehabilitative program as you try to return to normal activity without re-injuring your back. For good examples of these lower back braces, consider the Bio Skin Back Skin with Lumbar Pad or the Mueller Sports Medicine Green Adjustable Back & Abdominal Support. The McDavid Back Stabilizer includes steel stays for additional lumbar support. This feature is absent from many other back braces but makes it easier to qualify for insurance coverage in Canada.
Other back braces are designed with conditions like spondylitis or herniated disc problems in mind. The braces include the Bio Skin Back Flex, as an example. You should consult with your doctor to ensure that these braces have the features necessary to address your particular back problem.
Reduce Body Weight To Ease Low Back Pain
We mentioned above that, in some cases, low back pain can be the result of excessive body weight. So, if you are overweight, you may be able to reduce your low back pain through a weight reduction program. This will include both dietary modifications and more frequent exercise.
Pay Attention To Your Lifting Technique
This is one of the most frequently overlooked causes of low back pain among those who frequently lift heavy loads. In many cases, you may be bending your back excessively while lifting and putting to much pressure on that area. Instead, try bending your knees instead of your back. Keep your back as straight and vertical as possible while lifting. By doing so, you are using the stronger muscles in your thighs (quadriceps and hamstrings) and calves to bear the load and protecting your (relatively weak) back muscles.
You may be surprised at the way this simple change in lifting technique causes your low back pain to disappear in a few months or even weeks.
Steroid Injections & Back Surgery
If the above, more conservative treatment options are unsuccessful at treating your low back pain, your doctor may suggest more invasive approaches such as steroid injections or surgery. The injections may target irritated nerves that are responsible for sending the pain signals to your brain.
Surgical options for treatment include herniated disc removal, widening the space around the spinal cord (to treat spinal stenosis) or fusing adjacent spinal vertebrae together. Of course, before choosing any of these options, you should discuss their upsides and downsides in detail with your doctor.