NINDS-funded studies are contributing to a better understanding of why some people with acute low back pain recover fully while others go on to develop chronic low back pain. Brain imaging studies suggest that people with chronic low back pain have changes in brain structure and function. In one study, people with subacute back pain were followed for one year. Researchers found that certain patterns of functional connectivity across brain networks correlated with the likelihood of pain becoming chronic. The findings suggest that such patterns may help predict who is most likely to transition from subacute to chronic back pain. Other research seeks to determine the role of brain circuits important for emotional and motivational learning and memory in this transition, in order to identify new preventive interventions.
You’ve heard the saying: it’s all in the hips, but for many of us, our hips – or more precisely, our hip flexors – are tight, stiff and inflexible. If you’re an office worker you can probably thank sitting down at your desk 8 or more hours a day for your tight hip flexors. Habitual sitting causes your hip flexors to tighten and shorten – adjustable standing desks, anyone?
Spinal laminectomy (also known as spinal decompression) is performed when spinal stenosis causes a narrowing of the spinal canal that causes pain, numbness, or weakness. During the procedure, the lamina or bony walls of the vertebrae, along with any bone spurs, are removed. The aim of the procedure is to open up the spinal column to remove pressure on the nerves.
Disc degeneration remains a key cause of chronic low back pain and the pain often persists despite surgery. NIH-funded basic science and preclinical studies are investigating molecular-level mechanisms that cause discs in the spine to degenerate, as well as protective mechanisms involved in disc remodeling that may diminish with advancing age. Such studies may help identify future therapeutic strategies to block degenerative mechanisms or promote remodeling processes. NIH also is funding early research on stem cell approaches to promote disc regeneration and rejuvenate cells of the nucleus pulposus, the jelly-like substance in the center of intervertebral discs that loses water content as people age.
The lumbar spine (lower back) consists of five vertebrae in the lower part of the spine between the ribs and the pelvis. The bones (vertebrae) that form the spine in the back are cushioned by small discs. These discs are round and flat, with a tough, outer layer (annulus) that surrounds a jellylike material called the nucleus. Located between each of the vertebra in the spinal column, discs act as shock absorbers for the spinal bones. Thick ligaments attached to the vertebrae hold the pulpy disc material in place. Of the 31 pairs of spinal nerves and roots, five lumbar (L1-L5) and five sacral (S1-S5) nerve pairs connect beginning in the area of the lower back.
The treatment of lumbar strain consists of resting the back (to avoid reinjury), medications to relieve pain and muscle spasm, local heat applications, massage, and eventual (after the acute episode resolves) reconditioning exercises to strengthen the low back and abdominal muscles. Initial treatment at home might include heat application, acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), and avoiding reinjury and heavy lifting. Prescription medications that are sometimes used for acute low back pain include anti-inflammatory medications, such as sulindac (Clinoril), naproxen (Naprosyn), and ketorolac (Toradol) by injection or by mouth, muscle relaxants, such as carisoprodol (Soma), cyclobenzaprine (Flexeril), methocarbamol (Robaxin), and metaxalone (Skelaxin), as well as analgesics, such as tramadol (Ultram).
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.”
^ Chou R, Loeser JD, Owens DK, Rosenquist RW, Atlas SJ, Baisden J, Carragee EJ, Grabois M, Murphy DR, Resnick DK, Stanos SP, Shaffer WO, Wall EM, American Pain Society Low Back Pain Guideline Panel (2009). "Interventional therapies, surgery, and interdisciplinary rehabilitation for low back pain: An evidence-based clinical practice guideline from the American Pain Society". Spine. 34 (10): 1066–77. doi:10.1097/BRS.0b013e3181a1390d. PMID 19363457.
If you are experiencing true numbness14 around the groin and buttocks and/or failure of bladder or bowel control, please consider it a serious emergency — do not wait to see if it goes away. These symptoms indicate spinal cord injury or compression15 and require immediate medical attention. (Few people will have symptoms like this without having already decided it’s an emergency, but I have to cover all the bases here.)
You could do these moves all together as a single workout, or, as Miranda suggests, split them in half and do the first part one day and the second part another—"but do the warm-up with each one," she says. Those first three moves are meant to not only "wake up" the muscles, but also get your brain ready for the movement patterns to come. For that reason, she says that doing the first three moves "would be a fantastic warm-up before any workout."
3. Tendinitis and bursitis Many tendons around the hip connect the muscles to the joint. These tendons can easily become inflamed if you overuse them or participate in strenuous activities. One of the most common causes of tendinitis at the hip joint, especially in runners, is iliotibial band syndrome — the iliotibial band is the thick span of tissue that runs from the outer rim of your pelvis to the outside of your knee.
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.
A few cancers in their early stages can be hard to tell apart from ordinary back pain — a bone cancer in the vertebrae, for instance — and these create a frustrating diagnostic problem. They are too rare for doctors to inflict cancer testing on every low back pain patient “just in case.” And yet the possibility cannot be dismissed, either! It’s an unsolveable problem.
If low back pain gets worse or does not improve after two to three days of home treatment, contact a primary-care physician. The physician can evaluate the patient and perform a neurological exam in the office to determine which nerve root is being irritated, as well as rule out other serious medical conditions. If there are clear signs that the nerve root is being compressed, a physician can prescribe medications to relieve the pain, swelling and irritation; he or she also may recommend limitation of activities. If these treatment options do not provide relief within two weeks, it may be time to consider other diagnostic studies and possibly surgery.
These exercises can be done three to five times per week; be sure to build in a rest day here or there to allow your hip muscles to recover. Working to strengthen your knees and ankles can be done as well to be sure you completely work all muscles groups of your lower extremities. Remember, your ankle and knee muscles help control the position of your hips, just as your hip muscles control the position of your knees and ankles. They all work together in a kinetic chain.
Infection of the discs (septic discitis) and bone (osteomyelitis) is extremely rare. These conditions lead to localized pain associated with fever. The bacteria found when these tissues are tested with laboratory cultures include Staphylococcus aureus and Mycobacterium tuberculosis (TB bacteria). TB infection in the spine is called Pott's disease. These are each very serious conditions requiring long courses of antibiotics. The sacroiliac joints rarely become infected with bacteria. Brucellosis is a bacterial infection that can involve the sacroiliac joints and is usually transmitted in raw goat's milk.
With the stakes so high, doesn’t it make sense to do all you can to strengthen and protect your hips? Even if you have arthritis in a hip — the reason for 8 in 10 replacements — you may be able to manage pain with exercise. In a 2017 pilot study published in the Journal of Osteoporosis, women 65 and older who exercised three times a week in a supervised 12-week program reduced arthritic hip pain by over 30 percent, with similar gains in strength, and joint range of motion. The four exercises here will fortify the muscles that surround and support your hips, says trainer Robert Linkul, owner of Be Stronger Fitness in Sacramento, Calif. He advises doing these simple moves, two to three sets of five to 10 reps each, three times a week. Compare how you feel after three weeks.