Low back pain is an ache or discomfort in the area of the lower part of the back and spinal column. The lower spinal column consists of many small bones that surround and protect the spinal cord and nerves. Low back pain is very common, affecting most adults at some point in their lives.
Skeleton and Nerves
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There are many possible causes for low back pain, including:
- Sprain or strain of muscles or ligaments in the area (most common cause of back pain)
- Herniated (ruptured) disc—the cushions between the bones of the spine bulge out of place
- Disc degeneration , caused by aging or arthritis
- Spinal stenosis—narrowing of the spinal canal in the lumbar area
- Spondylolisthesis—slippage of a bone in the lower back
- Fractures due to trauma and/or osteoporosis
- Fibromyalgia—a condition that causes muscle aches and fatigue
- Ankylosing spondylitis—a hereditary disorder involving the spine
In rare cases:
- Benign or malignant tumors
- Arterial problems such as as an aortic aneurysm
A risk factor is something that increases your chance of getting a disease or condition.
Risk factors include:
- Older age
- Certain actitivies (such as lifting)
- Sedentary lifestyle
Preexisting back injury due to:
- Lifting a heavy object
- Improper lifting
- Sudden movement, bending, or twisting
- Prolonged sitting or standing
- Bad posture
- Vibration from vehicles or heavy equipment
- Prior back surgery
- Other factors which may negatively influence back pain include:
Pain is usually localized in the low back. It gets worse with back motion, sitting, standing, bending, and twisting. If a nerve is irritated, the pain may extend into the buttock or leg on the affected side, and muscle weakness or numbness may be present. It usually gets better with rest, and there is good bowel and bladder control.
More serious symptoms associated with back pain that may require immediate medical attention include:
- Pain that is severe or that has gotten dramatically worse
- Progressive weakness in a leg or foot
- Difficulty walking, standing, or moving
- Numbness in the genital or rectal area
- Loss of bowel or bladder control
- Difficulty with urination
- Fever, unexplained weight loss, or other signs of illness
- Pain that awakes you from sleep at night
Pain that doesn't improve or worsens with rest (even at night) may be an indication of a more serious disease.
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam. In particular, the doctor will examine your back, hips, and legs and usually will test for strength, flexibility, sensation, and reflexes.
Other tests may include:
- X-rays—a test that uses radiation to take a picture of structures inside the body, especially bones. This test is usually done if you are over 50 years old or have persistent symptoms for more than a week. This test has its limitations in that it does not show herniated discs or spinal stenosis.
- CT scan—a type of x-ray that uses a computer to make pictures of structures inside the body. This test provides a good picture of the vertebrae and the spinal canal. This test is done when there are persistent symptoms.
- MRI scan—a test that uses magnetic waves to make pictures of structures inside the body and shows the intervertebral discs and any abnormality of the discs. This test is done when there are persistent symptoms.
- Bone scan—a test to determine mineralization of the bones
- Blood tests—such as complete blood count (CBC) or sedimentation rate
- Urine test—to check for urinary infection or blood in the urine
Treatment options include:
Short-term bed rest is not generally recommended in normal individuals. It is only recommended in those with severe debilitating back pain, and for not more that 1-2 days. Movement helps in cases of muscle spasm and to maintain muscle strength.
- Pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), aspirin, or ibuprofen
- Muscle relaxants for muscle spasm—These medications are not used in cases where you need to be alert, such as driving or operating machinery.
- Cortisone injections
- Antidepressants for depression due to chronic pain
- Hot or cold packs
- Stretching and strengthening exercises for back and abdominal muscles
- Education about how to deal with back problems
- Ultrasound treatments or electrical stimulation
Your doctor may recommend that you restrict activities for 3-6 weeks, then resume activities as soon as possible.
The following steps may help you avoid low back pain:
- Begin a safe exercise program with the advice of your doctor.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- If you smoke, quit.
- Practice good posture to reduce pressure on your spine.
- Avoid sitting or standing in one position for prolonged periods.
- If you must remain standing for long periods, rest one foot at a time on a small stool to relieve pressure on your low back.
- When lifting, hold the object close to your chest, maintain a straight back, and use your leg muscles to slowly rise.
- Avoid aggravating activities, for example bending , twisting, and sudden movements.
- Consider job retraining if your work requires a lot of heavy lifting or sitting.
- If you have back pain during pregnancy, try wearing a BellyBra. This is a special bra to support your back and abdomen.*
American Academy of Family Physicians
American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
Canadian Orthopaedic Association
Canadian Orthopaedic Foundation
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*¹9/16/2008 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what.php: Kalus SM, Kornman LH, Quinlivan JA. Managing back pain in pregnancy using a support garment: a randomised trial. BJOG. 2008;115:68-75. Epub 2007 Nov 12.
Last reviewed February 2008 by Jill D. Landis, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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