If low back pain occurs after a recent injury — such as a car accident, a fall or sports injury — call your primary-care physician immediately. If there are any neurological symptoms, seek medical care immediately. If there are no neurological problems (i.e. numbness, weakness, bowel and bladder dysfunction), the patient may benefit by beginning conservative treatment at home for two to three days. The patient may take anti-inflammatory medications such as aspirin or ibuprofen and restrict strenuous activities for a few days.
Hip bursitis — an inflammation between your thighbone and nearby tendons — is commonly diagnosed when patients have pain on the outer side of the hip. However, several other conditions can cause similar pain, and require different treatments. "Doctors often assume that pain on the outer side of the hip is due to bursitis. But 90% of the time, it's not bursitis," says Dr. Lauren Elson, a physiatrist with Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.
Congenital bone conditions: Congenital causes (existing from birth) of low back pain include scoliosis and spina bifida. Scoliosis is a sideways (lateral) curvature of the spine that can be caused when one lower extremity is shorter than the other (functional scoliosis) or because of an abnormal architecture of the spine (structural scoliosis). Children who are significantly affected by structural scoliosis may require treatment with bracing and/or surgery to the spine. Adults infrequently are treated surgically but often benefit by support bracing. Spina bifida is a birth defect in the bony vertebral arch over the spinal canal, often with absence of the spinous process. This birth defect most commonly affects the lowest lumbar vertebra and the top of the sacrum. Occasionally, there are abnormal tufts of hair on the skin of the involved area. Spina bifida can be a minor bony abnormality without symptoms. However, the condition can also be accompanied by serious nervous abnormalities of the lower extremities.
How to: Get on your hands and knees, in a tabletop position (a). Slowly widen your knees out as far as they can go and bring your feet in line with your knees. Your shins should be parallel with one another (b). Flex your feet and ease yourself forward onto your forearms. (If the stretch is too intense, try putting your arms on a block or firm pillow.) Hold for eight to 12 breaths (c). If holding the stretch for longer, try slowly moving your hips forward and backward to bring the stretch to different parts of your hips.
Kneel on your mat with your thighs perpendicular to the floor and tops of your feet facing down. Bring your inner knees together. Slide your feet apart so they are slightly wider than your hips and press the tops of your feet evenly into the mat. Slowly sit down between your feet. Use your hands to turn the top of your thighs inward. Then, lean back onto your forearms and slowly lower torso to floor. Hold for at least 30 seconds.
Prolonged sitting and activities like running or cycling can lead to tight hip flexor muscles and a variety of skeletal imbalances. Think: if you only cycle for exercise, certain muscles in your legs will get stronger (in a lot of cases you overwork these muscles) yet your core and outer hip muscles might get weaker from lack of engagement. So what? Well, these muscle imbalances often lead to skeletal imbalances and injuries down the line. If you have particularly tight hip flexors, your body will start to create an anterior pull on the pelvis (anterior pelvic tilt). You can identify an anterior pelvic tilt if your belly protrudes slightly in the front while your butt sticks out in the back (what some people refer to as “duck butt”).
Sleeping in an awkward position can cause you to be in pain from the moment you wake up. The best sleeping position for lower back pain may be sleeping on your side with your knees drawn up close to your chest (also known as the fetal position). Placing a pillow or two between your legs, while sleeping on your side, helps to reduce stress on your lower back. Sleeping on a too soft mattress can also cause lower back pain. A firmer mattress is best.
The vast majority of low back pain is mechanical in nature. In many cases, low back pain is associated with spondylosis, a term that refers to the general degeneration of the spine associated with normal wear and tear that occurs in the joints, discs, and bones of the spine as people get older. Some examples of mechanical causes of low back pain include:
Sit on floor with knees bent and shins stacked with right leg on top. Use your hand to position right ankle on left knee. Ideally, the right knee will rest on the left thigh, but if your hips are tight, your right knee may point up toward the ceiling (overtime, as your hips become more open, your knee will lower). Keeping your hips squared to the front of the room, hinge at the hips and slowly walk hands slightly forward. If this is enough of a stretch, hold here, or fold your torso over your thighs to go deeper. Hold for at least 30 seconds, then repeat on opposite side.
In the vast majority of patients with low back pain, symptoms can be attributed to nonspecific mechanical factors. However, in a much smaller percentage of patients, the cause of back pain may be something more serious, such as cancer, cauda equina syndrome, spinal infection, spinal compression fractures, spinal stress fractures, ankylosing spondylitis, or aneurysm.
Discectomy (the partial removal of a disc that is causing leg pain) can provide pain relief sooner than nonsurgical treatments. Discectomy has better outcomes at one year but not at four to ten years. The less invasive microdiscectomy has not been shown to result in a different outcome than regular discectomy. For most other conditions, there is not enough evidence to provide recommendations for surgical options. The long-term effect surgery has on degenerative disc disease is not clear. Less invasive surgical options have improved recovery times, but evidence regarding effectiveness is insufficient.
Neglect your lower body too often and you risk losing mobility — that thing that allows you to plop down on the floor to play with your kids, or get up and out of even the cushiest chair with ease. “A lot of people sit all day, so they’re not necessarily using their glute muscles,” says Daily Burn Fitness/Nutrition Coach Allie Whitesides. “And a lot of people are in the car all the time, so we’re not using our leg muscles much, either.”
Management of low back pain depends on which of the three general categories is the cause: mechanical problems, non-mechanical problems, or referred pain. For acute pain that is causing only mild to moderate problems, the goals are to restore normal function, return the individual to work, and minimize pain. The condition is normally not serious, resolves without much being done, and recovery is helped by attempting to return to normal activities as soon as possible within the limits of pain. Providing individuals with coping skills through reassurance of these facts is useful in speeding recovery. For those with sub-chronic or chronic low back pain, multidisciplinary treatment programs may help. Initial management with non–medication based treatments is recommended, with NSAIDs used if these are not sufficiently effective.
Exercise therapy is effective in decreasing pain and improving function for those with chronic low back pain. It also appears to reduce recurrence rates for as long as six months after the completion of program and improves long-term function. There is no evidence that one particular type of exercise therapy is more effective than another. The Alexander technique appears useful for chronic back pain, and there is tentative evidence to support the use of yoga. Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) has not been found to be effective in chronic low back pain. Evidence for the use of shoe insoles as a treatment is inconclusive. Peripheral nerve stimulation, a minimally-invasive procedure, may be useful in cases of chronic low back pain that do not respond to other measures, although the evidence supporting it is not conclusive, and it is not effective for pain that radiates into the leg.
Degenerative disc disease. At birth, intervertebral discs are full of water and at their healthiest. As people age over time, discs lose hydration and wear down. As the disc loses hydration, it cannot resist forces as well, and transfers force to the disc wall that may develop tears and cause pain or weakening that can lead to a herniation. The disc can also collapse and contribute to stenosis.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) uses a magnetic force instead of radiation to create a computer-generated image. Unlike x-ray, which shows only bony structures, MRI scans also produce images of soft tissues such as muscles, ligaments, tendons, and blood vessels. An MRI may be ordered if a problem such as infection, tumor, inflammation, disc herniation or rupture, or pressure on a nerve is suspected. MRI is a noninvasive way to identify a condition requiring prompt surgical treatment. However, in most instances, unless there are “red flags” in the history or physical exam, an MRI scan is not necessary during the early phases of low back pain.
Low back pain may be classified based on the signs and symptoms. Diffuse pain that does not change in response to particular movements, and is localized to the lower back without radiating beyond the buttocks, is classified as nonspecific, the most common classification. Pain that radiates down the leg below the knee, is located on one side (in the case of disc herniation), or is on both sides (in spinal stenosis), and changes in severity in response to certain positions or maneuvers is radicular, making up 7% of cases. Pain that is accompanied by red flags such as trauma, fever, a history of cancer or significant muscle weakness may indicate a more serious underlying problem and is classified as needing urgent or specialized attention.
Low back pain has been with humans since at least the Bronze Age. The oldest known surgical treatise – the Edwin Smith Papyrus, dating to about 1500 BCE – describes a diagnostic test and treatment for a vertebral sprain. Hippocrates (c. 460 BCE – c. 370 BCE) was the first to use a term for sciatic pain and low back pain; Galen (active mid to late second century CE) described the concept in some detail. Physicians through the end of the first millennium did not attempt back surgery and recommended watchful waiting. Through the Medieval period, folk medicine practitioners provided treatments for back pain based on the belief that it was caused by spirits.
Injury to the bones and joints: Fractures (breakage of bone) of the lumbar spine and sacrum bone most commonly affect elderly people with osteoporosis, especially those who have taken long-term cortisone medication. For these individuals, occasionally even minimal stresses on the spine (such as bending to tie shoes) can lead to bone fracture. In this setting, the vertebra can collapse (vertebral compression fracture). The fracture causes an immediate onset of severe localized pain that can radiate around the waist in a band-like fashion and is made intensely worse with body motions. This pain generally does not radiate down the lower extremities. Vertebral fractures in younger patients occur only after severe trauma, such as from motor-vehicle accidents or a convulsive seizure.
The iliopsoas muscles are a group of two muscles—the psoas muscle and the iliacus muscle—located toward the front of the inner hip. The psoas muscles, in particular, is located in the lumbar (lower) region of the spine and extends through the pelvis to the femur. The iliopsoas muscles are the primary hip flexors, pulling the knee up off the ground when it contracts. Because the psoas muscle is also connected to the spine, it contributes to upright posture, assists in lumbar spine movement, and influences the spine’s curve.
Why is back pain still a huge problem? Maybe this: “It is extremely difficult to alter the potentially disabling belief among the lay public that low back pain has a structural mechanical cause. An important reason for this is that this belief continues to be regularly reinforced by the conditions of care of a range of ‘hands-on’ providers, for whom idiosyncratic variations of that view are fundamental to their professional existence.”
How to do it: Loop a resistance band around your ankles and lie on your right side with your right arm extended on the floor, left hand in front of your body for support. Brace your abs in tight, bring your bottom leg slightly in front of your top leg (let the inside of your top foot rest on the ground), and lift your leg up to the ceiling, keeping your hips stacked. Maintain tension on the band at all times and pulse your bottom leg up and down quickly 20 times. Repeat on the other side.
Strengthening exercises, beyond general daily activities, are not advised for acute low back pain, but may be an effective way to speed recovery from chronic or subacute low back pain. Maintaining and building muscle strength is particularly important for persons with skeletal irregularities. Health care providers can provide a list of beneficial exercises that will help improve coordination and develop proper posture and muscle balance. Evidence supports short- and long-term benefits of yoga to ease chronic low back pain.
Imaging is indicated when there are red flags, ongoing neurological symptoms that do not resolve, or ongoing or worsening pain. In particular, early use of imaging (either MRI or CT) is recommended for suspected cancer, infection, or cauda equina syndrome. MRI is slightly better than CT for identifying disc disease; the two technologies are equally useful for diagnosing spinal stenosis. Only a few physical diagnostic tests are helpful. The straight leg raise test is almost always positive in those with disc herniation. Lumbar provocative discography may be useful to identify a specific disc causing pain in those with chronic high levels of low back pain. Similarly, therapeutic procedures such as nerve blocks can be used to determine a specific source of pain. Some evidence supports the use of facet joint injections, transforminal epidural injections and sacroilliac injections as diagnostic tests. Most other physical tests, such as evaluating for scoliosis, muscle weakness or wasting, and impaired reflexes, are of little use.
If you have hip pain, you may benefit from the skilled services of a physical therapist to help determine the cause of your pain. Your PT can work with you to develop a treatment strategy to treat your hip pain or hip discomfort. Understanding why your hip is hurting can help your physical therapist and doctor prescribe the right treatment regimen for your specific condition.