Initial management with non–medication based treatments is recommended. NSAIDs are recommended if these are not sufficiently effective. Normal activity should be continued as much as the pain allows. Medications are recommended for the duration that they are helpful. A number of other options are available for those who do not improve with usual treatment. Opioids may be useful if simple pain medications are not enough, but they are not generally recommended due to side effects. Surgery may be beneficial for those with disc-related chronic pain and disability or spinal stenosis. No clear benefit has been found for other cases of non-specific low back pain. Low back pain often affects mood, which may be improved by counseling or antidepressants. Additionally, there are many alternative medicine therapies, including the Alexander technique and herbal remedies, but there is not enough evidence to recommend them confidently. The evidence for chiropractic care and spinal manipulation is mixed.
I am a science writer, former massage therapist, and I was the assistant editor at ScienceBasedMedicine.org for several years. I have had my share of injuries and pain challenges as a runner and ultimate player. My wife and I live in downtown Vancouver, Canada. See my full bio and qualifications, or my blog, Writerly. You might run into me on Facebook or Twitter.
The discs are pads that serve as "cushions" between the individual vertebral bodies. They help to minimize the impact of stress forces on the spinal column. Each disc is designed like a jelly donut with a central, softer component (nucleus pulposus) and a surrounding, firm outer ring (annulus fibrosus). The central portion of the disc is capable of rupturing (herniating as in a herniated disc) through the outer ring, causing irritation of adjacent nervous tissue and sciatica as described below. Ligaments are strong fibrous soft tissues that firmly attach bones to bones. Ligaments attach each of the vertebrae to each other and surround each of the discs.
Nerve block therapies aim to relieve chronic pain by blocking nerve conduction from specific areas of the body. Nerve block approaches range from injections of local anesthetics, botulinum toxin, or steroids into affected soft tissues or joints to more complex nerve root blocks and spinal cord stimulation. When extreme pain is involved, low doses of drugs may be administered by catheter directly into the spinal cord. The success of a nerve block approach depends on the ability of a practitioner to locate and inject precisely the correct nerve. Chronic use of steroid injections may lead to increased functional impairment.
The AANS does not endorse any treatments, procedures, products or physicians referenced in these patient fact sheets. This information is provided as an educational service and is not intended to serve as medical advice. Anyone seeking specific neurosurgical advice or assistance should consult his or her neurosurgeon, or locate one in your area through the AANS’ Find a Board-certified Neurosurgeon” online tool.
Talmage, J; Belcourt, R; Galper, J; et al. (2011). "Low back disorders". In Kurt T. Hegmann. Occupational medicine practice guidelines : evaluation and management of common health problems and functional recovery in workers (3rd ed.). Elk Grove Village, IL: American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. pp. 336, 373, 376–377. ISBN 978-0615452272.