Back pain can be confusing enough as it is. Sometimes it may be difficult deciphering if the pain is even coming from your back, and trying to figure out what causes it can be mind-boggling. And many experts recommend focusing on mechanical sources of your back pain rather than anatomical sources of your pain. Is it a herniated disc, bulging disc, or facet joint arthritis causing your problem? It can be hard to decide, so focusing on what you are doing and the positions you put your back in may be the best way to determine the cause of your back pain.
The side of the pain on its own doesn’t tell us much, and most of the one-sided sources of pain are viscera that usually cause abdominal pain instead of back pain, or in addition to it. In other words, the only reason to worry about right or left lower back pain is if it is otherwise worrisome: if you have other red flags or significant non-back symptoms.
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Icing a joint that’s inflamed because of arthritis or bursitis can lower inflammation and help with hip pain. “If it’s very painful, I sometimes tell patients to ice four or five times daily for about 10 to 15 minutes,” says Amy Humphrey, DPT, a physical therapist at Body Dynamics, Inc. in Arlington, Va. Use an ice pack, wrap a towel around it, and put it where you feel the pain.
The Reclined Hip Stretch is a Pilates mat exercise that is one of the best stretching exercises for the outside of the hip. It looks like a pretzel move, but once you get it figured out, it feels great. It is easy and you can control how intense the stretch is. It is a good warm-up stretch, and you might use it as one of the stretches you do each morning, especially if you have tight hips.
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."
Stretching is your next move, but not just any stretches. “Before your workout, you want to go for dynamic stretches, or stretches that put the joint through a full range of motion,” says Lefkowith. Moves like squats and lunges will get your muscles fired up (especially if you focus on squeezing your butt at the top of those squats), says Lefkowith.
Place a mini band around your ankles and spread your feet about shoulder-width apart. Keeping your legs relatively straight (you want the motion to come from your hips) and toes pointing forward, walk forward 10 steps, then backward 10 steps. Take a short break and then walk to the right 10 steps, then to the left 10 steps. Again, focus on keeping your legs straight and toes pointing forward.
Fitness level: Back pain is more common among people who are not physically fit. Weak back and abdominal muscles may not properly support the spine. “Weekend warriors”—people who go out and exercise a lot after being inactive all week—are more likely to suffer painful back injuries than people who make moderate physical activity a daily habit. Studies show that low-impact aerobic exercise is beneficial for the maintaining the integrity of intervertebral discs.
“Red flags” are signs or symptoms that something medically ominous may be going on. Red flags are not reliable, and their presence is not a diagnosis. When you have some red flags, it only indicates a need to look more closely. Sometimes red flags are missing there really is something serious going on … and sometimes they are a false alarm.18 Check off all that apply … hopefully none or few or only the least alarming of them!
People understandably assume that the worst back pain is the scariest. In fact, pain intensity is a poor indicator of back pain ominousness,10 and some of the worst causes are actually the least painful (especially in the early stages). For instance, someone could experience the symptoms of cauda equinae syndrome, and be in real danger of a serious and permanent injury to their spine, but have surprisingly little pain — even none at all in some cases!
Model Heather Lin grew up in the deep south but is currently hustling in New York, working at a bank. Whether she is biking home from work, deadlifting, kicking a heavy bag, or pouring all of her effort into a bootcamp class, it's important to her to find time in her busy day to work out. She feels her best when she is strong and energized, and blogs about her health and fitness journey at The Herbivore Warrior.
The bony lumbar spine is designed so that vertebrae "stacked" together can provide a movable support structure while also protecting the spinal cord from injury. The spinal cord is composed of nervous tissue that extends down the spinal column from the brain. Each vertebra has a spinous process, a bony prominence behind the spinal cord, which shields the cord's nervous tissue from impact trauma. Vertebrae also have a strong bony "body" (vertebral body) in front of the spinal cord to provide a platform suitable for weight bearing of all tissues above the buttocks. The lumbar vertebrae stack immediately atop the sacrum bone that is situated in between the buttocks. On each side, the sacrum meets the iliac bone of the pelvis to form the sacroiliac joints of the buttocks.
If you’re worried you’re headed toward a surgeon’s office, there might be hope. According to the Arthritis Foundation, the best way to avoid hip replacement surgery is to get active in an exercise program. In a study, people who participated in an exercise program for 12 weeks were 44 percent less likely to need joint-replacement surgery six years later than those who did not exercise.
Meanwhile, it’s extremely common for non-life-threatening low back pain to be alarmingly severe and persistent — to have a loud bark! Your doctor may not appreciate how true this is, and may over-react to all persistent low back pain, even without other red flags. In most cases, you shouldn’t let them scare you. Being “freaked out” about persistent back pain is the real threat: it can make low back pain much worse, and much more likely to last even longer (a tragic irony).
Acupuncture is no better than placebo, usual care, or sham acupuncture for nonspecific acute pain or sub-chronic pain. For those with chronic pain, it improves pain a little more than no treatment and about the same as medications, but it does not help with disability. This pain benefit is only present right after treatment and not at follow-up. Acupuncture may be a reasonable method to try for those with chronic pain that does not respond to other treatments like conservative care and medications.
Discography may be used when other diagnostic procedures fail to identify the cause of pain. This procedure involves the injection of a contrast dye into a spinal disc thought to be causing low back pain. The fluid’s pressure in the disc will reproduce the person’s symptoms if the disc is the cause. The dye helps to show the damaged areas on CT scans taken following the injection. Discography may provide useful information in cases where people are considering lumbar surgery or when their pain has not responded to conventional treatments.
Pregnancy commonly leads to low back pain by mechanically stressing the lumbar spine (changing the normal lumbar curvature) and by the positioning of the baby inside of the abdomen. Additionally, the effects of the female hormone estrogen and the ligament-loosening hormone relaxin may contribute to loosening of the ligaments and structures of the back. Pelvic-tilt exercises and stretches are often recommended for relieving this pain. Women are also recommended to maintain physical conditioning during pregnancy according to their doctors' advice. Natural labor can also cause low back pain.
A pinched nerve causes pain, numbness, or tingling in the affected area due to pressure on a nerve. Caral tunnel and sciatica are two examples of conditions caused by a pinched nerve. A pinched nerve is diagnosed by taking a patient history and performing a physical examination. Electromyography may be performed. Treatment for a pinched nerve depends on the underlying cause.
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.)
Low back pain can be caused by tumors, either benign or malignant, that originate in the bone of the spine or pelvis and spinal cord (primary tumors) and those which originate elsewhere and spread to these areas (metastatic tumors). Symptoms range from localized pain to radiating severe pain and loss of nerve and muscle function (even incontinence of urine and stool) depending on whether or not the tumors affect the nervous tissue. Tumors of these areas are detected using imaging tests, such as plain X-rays, nuclear bone scanning, and CAT and MRI scanning.
Iliopsoas syndrome, which is also called psoas syndrome or iliopsoas tendonitis, occurs when the iliopsoas muscles are injured. Lower back pain is the most common symptom; however, pain can also occur in the hip, thigh, or leg. The iliopsoas bursa, which is a fluid-filled sac located on the inside of the hip that reduces rubbing and friction, is also likely to become inflamed due to the proximity of the two structures. When this happens, the inflamed bursae will make it difficult to move.