Intervertebral disc degeneration is one of the most common mechanical causes of low back pain, and it occurs when the usually rubbery discs lose integrity as a normal process of aging. In a healthy back, intervertebral discs provide height and allow bending, flexion, and torsion of the lower back. As the discs deteriorate, they lose their cushioning ability.
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) is a component of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and is the leading federal funder of research on disorders of the brain and nervous system. As a primary supporter of research on pain and pain mechanisms, NINDS is a member of the NIH Pain Consortium, which was established to promote collaboration among the many NIH Institutes and Centers with research programs and activities addressing pain. On an even broader scale, NIH participates in the Interagency Pain Research Coordinating Committee, a federal advisory committee that coordinates research across other U.S. Department of Health and Human Services agencies as well as the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs.
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.
Men and women are equally affected by low back pain, which can range in intensity from a dull, constant ache to a sudden, sharp sensation that leaves the person incapacitated. Pain can begin abruptly as a result of an accident or by lifting something heavy, or it can develop over time due to age-related changes of the spine. Sedentary lifestyles also can set the stage for low back pain, especially when a weekday routine of getting too little exercise is punctuated by strenuous weekend workout.
To understand various causes of low back pain, it is important to appreciate the normal design (anatomy) of the tissues of this area of the body. Important structures of the low back that can be related to symptoms in this region include the bony lumbar spine (vertebrae, singular = vertebra), discs between the vertebrae, ligaments around the spine and discs, spinal cord and nerves, muscles of the low back, internal organs of the pelvis and abdomen, and the skin covering the lumbar area.
MRI and x-ray for low back pain are surprisingly unreliable,1 because things like bulging discs usually aren’t a deal,2 most back pain goes away on its own,3 and trigger points (“muscle knots”) are common and can be alarmingly intense but aren’t dangerous.4 Most patients are much better off when they feel confident about these things. The power of justified, rational confidence is a huge factor in back pain.5 Sadly, many healthcare professionals continue to perpetuate the idea of fragile backs,6 which undermines that valuable confidence.
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This standard recommendation reinforces the alarming idea that low back pain that lasts longer than a few weeks is Really Bad News. It’s not. It’s a clue. It’s a reason for concern and alertness. But many cases of low back pain that last for 6 weeks will still go away. Once again, see the 2009 research published in the British Medical Journal, which showed that more than 30% of patients with “new” chronic low back pain will still recover without treatment. BACK TO TEXT
Tight hip flexors can also make it harder for your glutes to activate—since they're opposing muscle groups, when one is really tight the other becomes lengthened. When a muscle is more lengthened than it should be, it takes away some of its ability to contract. When your glutes are in this compromised position, it can cause other muscles to do more work than they should, making your workouts less efficient and sometimes, increasing your risk of injury.
Foraminotomy is an operation that “cleans out” or enlarges the bony hole (foramen) where a nerve root exits the spinal canal. Bulging discs or joints thickened with age can cause narrowing of the space through which the spinal nerve exits and can press on the nerve, resulting in pain, numbness, and weakness in an arm or leg. Small pieces of bone over the nerve are removed through a small slit, allowing the surgeon to cut away the blockage and relieve pressure on the nerve.
An intervertebral disc has a gelatinous core surrounded by a fibrous ring. When in its normal, uninjured state, most of the disc is not served by either the circulatory or nervous systems – blood and nerves only run to the outside of the disc. Specialized cells that can survive without direct blood supply are in the inside of the disc. Over time, the discs lose flexibility and the ability to absorb physical forces. This decreased ability to handle physical forces increases stresses on other parts of the spine, causing the ligaments of the spine to thicken and bony growths to develop on the vertebrae. As a result, there is less space through which the spinal cord and nerve roots may pass. When a disc degenerates as a result of injury or disease, the makeup of a disc changes: blood vessels and nerves may grow into its interior and/or herniated disc material can push directly on a nerve root. Any of these changes may result in back pain.