2016 — More editing, more! Added some better information about pain being a poor indicator, and the role of myofascial trigger points. This article has become extremely busy in the last couple months — about 4,000 readers per day, as described here — so I am really polishing it and making sure that it’s the best possible answer to people’s fears about back pain.
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).
In diagnosing the causes of hip pain, it’s important to understand hip anatomy. The hip is basically a ball-and-socket joint similar to the shoulder joint and the arms. The hip joint is impressive in that it serves two factors, it is a support structure and also very flexible. Because it is a strong support structure, it tends to get injured. Because it’s very flexible, it similarly can be susceptible to injuries.
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.
Paget's disease can be diagnosed on plain X-rays. However, a bone biopsy is occasionally necessary to ensure the accuracy of the diagnosis. Bone scanning is helpful to determine the extent of the disease, which can involve more than one bone area. A blood test, alkaline phosphatase, is useful for diagnosis andmonitoring response to therapy. Treatment options include aspirin, other anti-inflammatory medicines, pain medications, and medications that slow therate of bone turnover, such as calcitonin (Calcimar, Miacalcin), etidronate (Didronel), alendronate (Fosamax), risedronate (Actonel), and pamidronate (Aredia).

Imaging is indicated when there are red flags, ongoing neurological symptoms that do not resolve, or ongoing or worsening pain.[5] In particular, early use of imaging (either MRI or CT) is recommended for suspected cancer, infection, or cauda equina syndrome.[5] MRI is slightly better than CT for identifying disc disease; the two technologies are equally useful for diagnosing spinal stenosis.[5] Only a few physical diagnostic tests are helpful.[5] The straight leg raise test is almost always positive in those with disc herniation.[5] Lumbar provocative discography may be useful to identify a specific disc causing pain in those with chronic high levels of low back pain.[41] Similarly, therapeutic procedures such as nerve blocks can be used to determine a specific source of pain.[5] Some evidence supports the use of facet joint injections, transforminal epidural injections and sacroilliac injections as diagnostic tests.[5] Most other physical tests, such as evaluating for scoliosis, muscle weakness or wasting, and impaired reflexes, are of little use.[5]


Sit in a chair with good lumbar support and proper position and height for the task. Keep shoulders back. Switch sitting positions often and periodically walk around the office or gently stretch muscles to relieve tension. A pillow or rolled-up towel placed behind the small of the back can provide some lumbar support. During prolonged periods of sitting, elevate feet on a low stool or a stack of books.

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.
Example: a friend of mine went to the hospital after a motorcycle accident. He’d flown over a car and landed hard on his head. Bizarrely, he was sent home with very little care, and no imaging of his back, even though he was complaining of severe lower back pain. A doctor reassured him that it was just muscle spasms. (This all happened at a hospital that was notorious for being over-crowded and poorly run.) The next day, still in agony, he went to see a doctor at a walk-in clinic, who immediately took him for an x-ray … which identified a serious lumbar fracture and imminent danger of paralysis. He had been lucky to get through the night without disaster! He was placed on a spine board immediately and sent for surgery. The moral of the story? Sometimes, when you’ve had a major trauma and your back really hurts, it’s because your back is broken. BACK TO TEXT
Intradiscal electrothermal therapy (IDET) is a treatment for discs that are cracked or bulging as a result of degenerative disc disease. The procedure involves inserting a catheter through a small incision at the site of the disc in the back. A special wire is passed through the catheter and an electrical current is applied to heat the disc, which helps strengthen the collagen fibers of the disc wall, reducing the bulging and the related irritation of the spinal nerve. IDET is of questionable benefit.

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.
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.
Subacute low back pain. Lasting between 6 weeks and 3 months, this type of pain is usually mechanical in nature (such as a muscle strain or joint pain) but is prolonged. At this point, a medical workup may be considered, and is advisable if the pain is severe and limits one’s ability to participate in activities of daily living, sleeping, and working.
Bleeding in the pelvis is rare without significant trauma and is usually seen in patients who are taking blood-thinning medications, such as warfarin (Coumadin). In these patients, a rapid-onset sciatica pain can be a sign of bleeding in the back of the pelvis and abdomen that is compressing the spinal nerves as they exit to the lower extremities. Infection of the pelvis is infrequent but can be a complication of conditions such as diverticulosis, Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, pelvic inflammatory disease with infection of the Fallopian tubes or uterus, and even appendicitis. Pelvic infection is a serious complication of these conditions and is often associated with fever, lowering of blood pressure, and a life-threatening state.
Approximately 15 degrees of hip extension is required to walk normally. If hip flexors are tight then in order to walk, compensatory movement needs to take place through the lower back causing back pain and premature disc degeneration. Like other joints, if we fail to take them through their full range on a regular basis we eventually lose mobility.
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You can use over-the-counter remedies such as Motrin or Advil (ibuprofen) or Aleve (naproxen) to help with pain and swelling. Tylenol (acetaminophen) works for pain relief, but it doesn't treat inflammation and swelling. If you have heart disease, high blood pressure, kidney disease, or if you've had ulcers or internal bleeding, check with your doctor before taking any of these medications.

The story of actor Andy Whitfield is a disturbing and educational example of a case that met these conditions — for sure the first two, and probably the third as well if we knew the details. Whitfield was the star of the hit TV show Spartacus (which is worthwhile, but rated very, very R17). The first sign of the cancer that killed him in 2011 was steadily worsening back pain. It’s always hard to diagnose a cancer that starts this way, but Whitfield was in the middle of intense physical training to look the part of history’s most famous gladiator. Back pain didn’t seem unusual at first, and some other symptoms may have been obscured. Weight loss could have even seemed like a training victory at first! It was many long months before he was diagnosed — not until the back pain was severe and constant. A scan finally revealed a large tumour pressing against his spine.
Back pain can suck the joy out of your days for week, months, even years. It can definitely be “serious” even when it’s not dangerous. I have worked with many truly miserable chronic low back pain patients, and of course the huge economic costs of back pain are cited practically anywhere the subject comes up. But your typical case of chronic low back pain, as nasty as it can be, has never killed anyone.
Gait analysis studies in the elderly show that they typically have a shortened step length. Whether that is a result of tight hip flexors or due to reduced balance, the propensity to walk with shorter steps will itself lead to tightness in hip flexors and anterior joint structures. Hip stretches may be a relatively easy preventative strategy for the elderly with gait abnormalities and may help to prevent falls.
But moving is important for hip and knee OA. It causes your joints to compress and release, bringing blood flow, nutrients, and oxygen into the cartilage. “This can help prolong the function and longevity of your joints,” says Eric Robertson, DPT, a physical therapist and associate professor of clinical physical therapy at the University of Southern California.
Management of low back pain depends on which of the three general categories is the cause: mechanical problems, non-mechanical problems, or referred pain.[52] 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.[3] Providing individuals with coping skills through reassurance of these facts is useful in speeding recovery.[1] For those with sub-chronic or chronic low back pain, multidisciplinary treatment programs may help.[53] Initial management with non–medication based treatments is recommended, with NSAIDs used if these are not sufficiently effective.[6]
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.
Lumbar radiculopathy: Lumbar radiculopathy is nerve irritation that is caused by damage to the discs between the vertebrae. Damage to the disc occurs because of degeneration ("wear and tear") of the outer ring of the disc, traumatic injury, or both. As a result, the central softer portion of the disc can rupture (herniate) through the outer ring of the disc and abut the spinal cord or its nerves as they exit the bony spinal column. This rupture is what causes the commonly recognized "sciatica" pain of a herniated disc that shoots from the low back and buttock down the leg. Sciatica can be preceded by a history of localized low-back aching or it can follow a "popping" sensation and be accompanied by numbness and tingling. The pain commonly increases with movements at the waist and can increase with coughing or sneezing. In more severe instances, sciatica can be accompanied by incontinence of the bladder and/or bowels. The sciatica of lumbar radiculopathy typically affects only one side of the body, such as the left side or right side, and not both. Lumbar radiculopathy is suspected based on the above symptoms. Increased radiating pain when the lower extremity is lifted supports the diagnosis. Nerve testing (EMG/electromyogramspina bifida
Degenerative bone and joint conditions: As we age, the water and protein content of the body's cartilage changes. This change results in weaker, thinner, and more fragile cartilage. Because both the discs and the joints that stack the vertebrae (facet joints) are partly composed of cartilage, these areas are subject to wear and tear over time (degenerative changes). Degeneration of the disc is called spondylosis. Spondylosis can be noted on X-rays of the spine as a narrowing of the normal "disc space" between the vertebrae. It is the deterioration of the disc tissue that predisposes the disc to herniation and localized lumbar pain ("lumbago") in older patients. Degenerative arthritis (osteoarthritis) of the facet joints is also a cause of localized lumbar pain that can be detected with plain X-ray testing. These causes of degenerative back pain are usually treated conservatively with intermittent heat, rest, rehabilitative exercises, and medications to relieve pain, muscle spasm, and inflammation.

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).
The symptoms can also be classified by duration as acute, sub-chronic (also known as sub-acute), or chronic. The specific duration required to meet each of these is not universally agreed upon, but generally pain lasting less than six weeks is classified as acute, pain lasting six to twelve weeks is sub-chronic, and more than twelve weeks is chronic.[3] Management and prognosis may change based on the duration of symptoms.
Contour Sleep Knee Spacer: Correct sleep alignment is a critical component to rehabilitating an injured hip. This device can help to decrease pressure to the legs and hips while you sleep. Perfect for side sleepers, the Contour Sleep Knee Spacer fits softly between the knees without disrupting your sleep. It helps tense muscles relax and lets you have a better night’s sleep free from painful hip tension.
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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.[5] 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.[5] 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.[5]
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Two types of strength-training moves that may benefit the lower back are flexion and extension exercises. In flexion exercises, you bend forward to stretch the muscles of the back and hips. In extension exercises, you bend backward to develop the muscles that support the spine. One example is doing leg lifts while lying on your stomach. Depending on the cause of your back pain, there are some exercises you should not do. If you have back pain, make sure to talk to your doctor about what exercises are safe for you.
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