Discectomy or microdiscectomy may be recommended to remove a disc, in cases where it has herniated and presses on a nerve root or the spinal cord, which may cause intense and enduring pain. Microdiscectomy is similar to a conventional discectomy; however, this procedure involves removing the herniated disc through a much smaller incision in the back and a more rapid recovery. Laminectomy and discectomy are frequently performed together and the combination is one of the more common ways to remove pressure on a nerve root from a herniated disc or bone spur.
Other problems may occur along with low back pain. Chronic low back pain is associated with sleep problems, including a greater amount of time needed to fall asleep, disturbances during sleep, a shorter duration of sleep, and less satisfaction with sleep. In addition, a majority of those with chronic low back pain show symptoms of depression or anxiety.
There is a significant overlap of nerve supply to many of the discs, muscles, ligaments, and other spinal structures, and it can be difficult for the brain to accurately sense which is the cause of the pain. For example, a degenerated or torn lumbar disc can feel the same as a pulled muscle – both creating inflammation and painful muscle spasm in the same area. Muscles and ligaments heal rapidly, while a torn disc may or may not. The time course of pain helps determine the cause.
While leg lifts, certain ab exercises, and even hula hooping can all help work the hips, the hip flexors can still be a tricky part of the body to stretch Kinetics of hula hooping: An inverse dynamics analysis. Cluff, T., Robertson, D.G., and Balasubramaniam, R. School of Human Kinetics, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Human Movement Science, 2008 Aug; 27 (4): 622-35.. To get them even stronger and more flexible, try these five simple hip flexor stretches:
If you develop a sudden onset of low back pain, a visit to your physical therapist can help you determine the correct things to do to manage your acute pain. Your physical therapist should be able to analyze your lifestyle, movements, and overall medical history to help determine the likely cause of your pain. By focusing on these mechanical causes of back pain, you can make a change that may give you relief.
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.
Most Australian adults will experience low back pain at some time in their lives. Most low back pain gets better without the need to see a doctor, and gentle activity, not bed rest, seems usually to be the best treatment. Low back pain (lumbar pain) can be caused by a problem in the muscles, ligaments, discs, joints or nerves of the spine.Some back pain is due to serious problems, but most back problems are ‘mechanical’ in nature and can be prevented by looking after your back and keeping it in good shape.SymptomsThe symptoms of low back pain may include:Dull ache in the lower back;Stiffness of the lower back;Tingling or numbness of the leg(s);Tingling or pain in a buttock;Pain in the hip;Muscle spasms or seizing up of the back muscles;Sharp pain;Difficulty walking or standing up straight;Weakness of the leg or foot.Sometimes back pain is more on one side of the spine than the other.When to seek immediate medical help for back painRarely, back pain may be a sign of something serious. There are some signs and symptoms that may accompany the back pain or features of the pain that mean you should seek medical help immediately. These include:New bowel or bladder problems, such as not being able to urinate or incontinence.Numbness over the buttocks, especially in a pattern like a saddle.Fever or chills.A recent fall or injury to the back.Back pain that is worse when you are resting, lying down or in bed at night.Throbbing in the abdomen.Weakness in a leg, which might show itself as dragging a foot or one leg.Unexplained weight loss.Also, if you are over 50 or under 16 and have back pain you should see your doctor. Similarly, if you have ever had cancer or suffer from osteoporosis, or the back pain is accompanied by unexplained weight loss, you should seek medical advice.Diagnosis and tests for low back painTo help diagnose the cause of your back pain or rule out any serious problems, your doctor may ask questions about the pain, such as:Did the back pain come on suddenly, does it come and go, or has it gradually worsened over time?Is your back sore to the touch?Is your back pain affected by your position, e.g. is it worse or better when you stand or sit, or bend over or lie down?Was it brought on by exercise or activity that you are unaccustomed to?Do you have any pain in your feet or legs?Is there any tingling in your legs or feet?Is the back pain accompanied by any swelling?Is the pain worse during the night?Are you having any problems going to the toilet?Your doctor will examine your back and may wish to feel and locate any areas of sensitivity and pain. They may ask you to perform movements so they can see your range of motion. They may also test the nerves.These examinations will not usually reveal the exact cause of the back pain, but they help your doctor to rule out any serious problems or problems needing immediate attention. In many cases, knowing the exact cause of the pain does not change the recommendations for treatment. Most non-specific back pain or uncomplicated back pain does not need a precise diagnosis of the anatomical problems that are causing it before treatment is started.X-rays or other radiological imaging tests are not usually recommended initially for low back pain as the findings do not necessarily correspond with the severity of symptoms. For example, many adults have signs of damage (such as to discs or facet joints) on X-ray, but have no symptoms of back pain. And conversely, many people with low back pain will have no obvious signs of damage on X-rays.If the back pain has been ongoing, or your doctor suspects a fracture or specific cause, they may suggest you have some imaging tests. Sometimes, your doctor may wish to order blood tests to rule out or confirm causes such as infection, inflammation or cancer.Imaging tests used in low back painIf your doctor suspects a specific cause of the back pain then they may refer you for imaging tests such as X-ray of the lumbar spine (although plain X-rays are rarely useful), or an MRI scan. MRI scans can show the spinal discs and the nerve roots and the soft tissues. MRIs are probably the most useful imaging technique for low back pain as they can show problems with the discs and whether anything is pressing on the nerves of the spinal cord. Sometimes a CT scan will be suggested, if an MRI is not available.Ultrasound may be used if kidney stones are suspected as the cause of the pain.Nerve conduction studies called electromyography may be suggested, however the results often don’t reflect the symptoms, so this test may not give any useful information.Should I see a specialist for low back pain?Depending on the results of tests, your doctor may refer you to a specialist, however, 99 per cent of low back pain that GPs see is not serious. Specialists that treat low back pain include pain specialists, neurosurgeons, rheumatologists and orthopaedic surgeons.In addition to doctors, many people find consulting with a physiotherapist or osteopath may help. Osteopaths and physiotherapists may help with diagnosis of some back problems, mobility, exercises, stretching and advice.Osteopaths and physiotherapists don’t require you to have a referral from your GP. Their services are only rebated on Medicare as part of a specific chronic disease plan, but may be covered by private health insurance extras cover.Causes of low back painMost backaches are due to problems with the muscles, ligaments and joints. More serious problems occur when the nerves or spinal cord are injured, usually by local pressure.Back muscle strainsLow back pain can be due to a pulled or torn muscle in the lumbar region. There are many muscles involved in the lower back, which help support the spine and the upper body. These include extensor muscles (such as the erector spinae), the oblique muscles and the flexors (such as the psoas).When any of these muscles are stretched or torn (strained), there are micro-tears in the muscle fibres and these tears give rise to inflammation and pain. Myofascial pain like this from the muscles around the spine usually resolves after a short period of active recovery. But, it can also be present alongside other causes of back pain.Lumbar sprainA lumbar sprain happens when the ligaments of the lower back are stretched or torn. Ligaments are the tough connective tissue that joins bones, joints and cartilage together and keeps them stable. If the ligaments are stretched too far they can tear.The symptoms and treatment of a lumbar sprain are the same as for lumbar strain - which affects the muscles, rather than the ligaments.Muscle spasmsYou won’t usually know whether your low back pain is a result of a muscle problem or a ligament problem. Both can cause quite severe pain and cause inflammation in the surrounding area and sometimes spasm of the surrounding muscles. A back spasm is felt as a cramping or tightening of the muscles. Spasms are involuntary contractions of the muscle - that means you have no control over them.Muscle spasms are usually caused by the back trying to protect itself from damage to the muscles themselves or may indicate that there is an underlying injury to the spine itself.Degenerative disc diseaseDegenerative disc disease refers to normal changes to the spinal discs caused by ageing. The intervertebral discs are cushion-like structures between the vertebrae - the bony joints of the spine. The discs have a tough outside casing and are filled with a gel-like centre. They act like shock absorbers.As we age the discs become stiffer, drier and thinner. This makes them less flexible and supple and they may restrict movement and cause pain. Degenerative changes are more frequent in the lumbar (lower) spine and the cervical (neck) region of the spine.Degenerative disc disease of the spine may cause chronic (ongoing) low back pain, interspersed with more painful flare-ups from time to time. The pain is often worse when sitting, as the back is carrying more load in that position, and the pain may be relieved by standing up, changing positions or lying down.With ageing, bone spurs - tiny growths on the edges of the bones of the spine - may also occur. These bone spurs (osteophytes) are usually smooth and may not cause any pain.Ruptured, prolapsed or herniated discSometimes called a ‘slipped disc’, a herniated disc happens when the soft jelly-like centre of a spinal disc bulges out of a tear in the outer casing of the disc. The disc itself doesn’t move, but a split in its casing allows the soft middle (nucleus pulposus) to bulge out (herniate).Herniated discs don’t always cause problems - up to a third of people who don’t have back pain are shown to have herniated discs on imaging. However, sometimes the bulging part can press on a nerve and cause pain, tingling and other problems, such as weakness. Inflammation from the site may also contribute to symptoms. Prolapsed discs like this can be the cause of sciatica. The discs in the lumbar spine are most likely to herniate - these are the discs between the 5 lumbar vertebrae - L1 to L5.Over time, the herniated portion of the disc (that’s the part that’s bulging out) usually gets smaller (regresses) and the symptoms ease and may go away. Most people with symptoms will improve in 2 weeks.Facet joint problemsFacet joint problems are common causes of back pain and the resulting condition is commonly referred to as facet joint pain or facet joint syndrome.The facet joints are small stabilising joints between and behind the vertebrae of the spine. There are 2 facet joints between each 2 vertebrae at every level of the spine (except the very top vertebrae in the neck). They allow some flexibility so that you can slightly twist and turn around, but they give you stability so that there isn’t excessive movement in your spine. The facet joints in the lumbar region allow only flexion and extension, so no twisting. Facet joints are synovial joints, so the joint surfaces have cartilage to allow them to glide smoothly together and they are enclosed in a lubricant-filled capsule.Over time, facet joints can wear out, and with wear and tear the cartilage can become thin, leading to the bones rubbing on each other. This osteoarthritis leads to inflammation and pain, and bone spurs can form on the surface of the bone. As the intervertebral discs become thinner with age, more pressure still is put on the facet joints.Facet joints can also slip (dislocate) and become locked in position. Locked facet joints happen suddenly, for example when a person bends down to tie a shoelace and then experiences that their back seizes up. Problems with facet joints can be unpredictable.Symptoms of facet joint problems include tenderness over the affected facet joint, decreased movement and stiffness, pain when bending backwards and pain in the buttock or radiating down thigh (but not beyond knee).Spinal stenosisSpinal stenosis means narrowing of the spaces in the spine, either:narrowing of the spinal canal (the hollow ‘tube’ that holds the spinal cord);narrowing of the spaces where the nerve roots exit the side of each vertebrae; orNarrowing and impingement of the nerve root after it has exited the vertebrae.Spinal stenosis can be caused by degeneration of other structures in the back, such as the facet joints or discs, for example by bone spurs or herniated discs. Some people inherit a small spinal canal in the first place.Symptoms of spinal stenosis often start slowly and worsen over time. They may include tingling, numbness or weakness in the feet or legs. If you have symptoms like these, you must visit a doctor.Ankylosing spondylitisAnkylosing spondylitis is a type of arthritis affecting the spine. The cause is not known, but there is a strong inherited component to the disease.The symptoms of ankylosing spondylitis are lower back pain and stiffness (especially first thing in the morning), tiredness and pain over the buttocks and down the thigh. The pain tends to ease as the day goes on. Rest does not help back pain from ankylosing spondylitis.Ankylosing spondylitis also causes pain and arthritis in other joints of the body, other than the spine.SpondylolisthesisSpondylolisthesis is when one of your vertebrae slips forwards or backwards out of its normal alignment, causing a step in the building blocks of the spine. It most commonly affects one of the lumbar vertebrae in the lower back.It doesn’t always cause pain, but when it does the pain is usually worse during activity and relieved by lying down. If the slipped vertebra presses on a nerve, then you may have symptoms of sciatica - tingling down your leg and over your buttock. People with spondylolisthesis often have tight hamstrings.Spondylolisthesis may be due to a fracture or a defect that is inherited. It may be caused by a traumatic injury, such as from high-impact sports (e.g. gymnastics) or a motor vehicle accident. If the spine has become worn and arthritic, then spondylolisthesis is more likely.Sacro-iliac joint problemsProblems with the sacro-iliac joints - the 2 joints that join your sacrum (tailbone) to your pelvis - can give rise to low back pain. You have a sacroiliac joint on the left and one on the right of your sacrum (the triangular shaped bone at the base of your spine).The sacro-iliac joints are designed to be fairly stiff, and don’t normally allow more than a few degrees of movement. They function as shock absorbers. If the joints are abnormally mobile (too much movement) or restricted in movement they can give rise to low back pain. The SI joints may also become inflamed (called sacroiliitis).Symptoms of sacro-iliac joint pain include low back pain, leg pain (but rarely below the knee), pain in the sacro-iliac region itself or in the buttocks. There may be muscle spasms of surrounding muscles as they try to protect themselves or respond to underlying damage.Cauda equina syndrome (CES)Cauda equina syndrome is a medical emergency caused by compression of the spinal nerve roots. Below the waist near where the lumbar spine starts, your spinal cord separates into a bundle of nerves and nerve roots that resemble a horse’s tail; this is the cauda equina. These nerve roots supply messages to your legs, feet and pelvic organs. Anything that compromises the nerves can affect the function of your bladder, bowel, legs and feet and could result in paralysis or loss of continence.Symptoms of cauda equina syndrome may come and go, developing slowly over time, or come on suddenly and include:numbness of the buttocks in the pattern of where you would sit on a saddle;severe low back pain;tingling, weakness or pain in one or both legs;changes to bowel or bladder function;abnormal sensations in the bladder or rectum;sudden loss of sexual function;loss of some reflexes.If you develop any of these symptoms, you should visit a doctor or the emergency department straightaway.CES can be caused by a severe rupture of a lumbar disc, spinal stenosis, spine injury, inflammation or a birth defect.Spinal fractureOsteoporosis - a condition causing spongy bones - can cause sudden compression fractures (cracks) of the vertebrae. These osteoporotic compression fractures usually affect the vertebrae of the thoracic (upper) spine, but may also affect the lumbar (lower) vertebrae. They cause sudden back pain when they happen and can lead to ongoing pain, pain that is worse when standing or walking, and loss of height. Vertebral fractures such as this are common in postmenopausal women and older men.Spinal fractures may also be due to trauma, falls, sports injuries, or motor vehicle accidents.SpondylolysisSpondylolysis is a type of fracture or stress fracture in the vertebrae. It often affects young athletes who do sports such as gymnastics or football. Whilst the fractures sometimes spontaneously heal, they may not heal correctly and can cause ongoing back pain.Mostly there are no symptoms in young people with spondylolysis, but symptoms can include lower back pain which may extend into the buttocks or legs.Spondylolysis is a common cause of spondylolisthesis (mentioned earlier) where one vertebra slips out of position over another. Conversely, in older people with spondylolisthesis, this can lead to uneven loading of the facet joint, causing a compression fracture.CancerCancer is a rare cause of back pain. Tumours affecting the spine are usually secondary cancers that have spread from the primary tumour somewhere else in the body. Symptoms of spinal tumours include back pain, unexplained weight loss, weakness or numbness in arms or legs, and pain that is worse at night and which doesn’t go away with rest.Risk factorsRisk factors for low back pain include:Being overweight or obese - which puts more strain on the back.Being middle aged or older - back pain is more common the older you get.Lack of exercise - which can lead to weak back muscles that don’t support the spine.Poor posture - this can lead to muscle imbalances.Heavy physical work and lifting weights that are too heavy.Incorrect lifting technique, e.g. using your back instead of your legs.Overdoing it or doing unaccustomed exercise.Being pregnant.Stress - this can lead you to unconsciously tighten your back muscles.Sitting for long periods of time.Scoliosis - an abnormal curving of the spine sideways.Treatment and self-help for low back painMost uncomplicated back pain resolves after a period of active recovery and people are generally back to normal within 4 weeks.See your doctor if you are at all concerned about your back pain, and especially if any of the following occur:Your back pain has not improved after a couple of weeks;The pain is getting worse as time goes on. Active recovery includes trying to do normal activities as much as possible and keeping active. Gentle walking, which improves blood flow and speeds up healing, can help. Doctors now know that inactivity and rest will lead to stiffness and more pain and is more likely to lead to ongoing back problems.Careful stretching may help relax muscles, especially if you have muscle spasms.You may find that sleeping with a pillow between your legs can make night-times more comfortable.Over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol or anti-inflammatories, e.g. ibuprofen (Nurofen), may help ease pain and reduce inflammation. If they are suitable for you, anti-inflammatories may be more effective than paracetamol. The pain probably won’t be completely eliminated, but this should enable you to resume gentle activity. Make sure you take the recommended dose. These medicines are not suitable for everyone, so always check with your doctor or pharmacist.Topical pain relievers are applied to the skin at the site of the pain. They are creams or ointments, usually. Some use the same ingredients that are in the tablet forms of over the counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen or aspirin. Others have ingredients such as capsaicin, a compound from chilli peppers, or menthol.Stronger painkillers. Depending on the circumstances of your back pain, your doctor may prescribe other painkillers, antidepressants or other medicines.There is no evidence to support using muscle relaxants to treat low back pain. Oxycodone (prescribed as Endone or Oxycontin) is a strong painkiller belonging to the opioid group of medicines and is sometimes prescribed for back pain. Oxycodone can lead to addiction if used for long periods and also carries the risk of overdose. Whilst it may be effective in the short term for sudden onset of back pain, oxycodone is not recommended long term and there is no evidence for it being effective in the long term. Codeine is another strong painkiller, sometimes used in the short term for back pain. Codeine is another opioid and can also lead to addiction.Hot or cold packs may help with the pain as may sitting in a warm bath. Heat loosens tight muscles and increases blood flow, bringing more oxygen and nutrients to the area. Cold can help reduce pain and swelling. Cold is usually used in the beginning stages of an injury.Exercise programs - A physiotherapist or osteopath should be able to help you with an exercise programme to improve mobility, reduce pain, prevent further injury and help with recovery from back pain.Don’t worry too much or allow negative thoughts to run amok - the relationship between our thoughts and pain is complex. Worry and anxiety about back pain can make the pain worse.Acupuncture - there is no evidence to show that acupuncture has any effect in improving low back pain, however, it is unlikely to be harmful.TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) - this technique uses low voltage electrical current and is said to block pain signals. At the moment, there is no evidence to show TENS has any effect in helping low back pain.Therapeutic massage - The evidence to support the effectiveness of massage to help lower back pain is not very strong, but some people have found it offers relief. Spinal manipulation is definitely not recommended, though, as it may not be safe in some situations.Pilates - Studio training with experienced instructors can help with core stability and posture, and improve the health of your spine and muscle strength. Pilates training works on the deep support muscles of the spine and should help protect you from future episodes of back pain.Yoga - Yoga can help with flexibility and posture, and along with the breathing and meditation aspects yoga may help to relieve lower back pain and improve function of the spine. Some yoga positions are not safe for people with certain back conditions, so you should always let a yoga instructor know if you have back problems.Alexander technique - The Alexander technique helps you to recognise and correct poor postural habits which lead to tension and pain in the body. Teachers in the Alexander technique observe the way you move and then with gentle guidance help you to learn safer and more relaxed ways of moving your body. One-to-one lessons in the Alexander technique have been shown to have a beneficial effect on back pain and functioning in people with ongoing or recurrent low back pain, even 12 months after the lessons have finished.Anti-inflammatory diet - Some foods have been shown to contribute to inflammation in the body, which in turn might aggravate back pain. Processed foods are generally acknowledged to be pro-inflammatory (causing inflammation). On the other hand, some foods are known to have an anti-inflammatory effect or can help with pain relief. Some foods known to reduce inflammation are omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish), and antioxidants from colourful fruit and vegetables.Facet joint injections - Facet joint injections are corticosteroid injections. Australian guidelines now recommend that in most cases, facet joint injections are not helpful. They were done when a facet joint was suspected of causing the back pain. If the pain went away then this confirmed the diagnosis of facet joint disease or facet joint syndrome.Back surgery - In ongoing, non-specific back pain, there is no evidence that surgery helps. Surgery is usually only relevant for a minority of people with back pain, who have specific anatomical causes of their back pain, such as problems that cause pinching of a nerve. Techniques for back surgery are becoming less and less invasive, many being carried out using keyhole surgery.Types of spinal surgery include: spinal fusion, which permanently connects 2 vertebrae together using a bone graft;lumbar decompression, which removes structures that are pressing on a nerve root, by either microdiscectomy, where the protruding pieces of a herniated disc are removed under microscopic view; or laminectomy, a more open type of surgery, where the facet joints may be trimmed, as well as problems with discs resolved.Kyphoplasty - insertion of a balloon to expand a compressed vertebra, followed by injection of bone cement into the vertebra. These compression fractures are usually from osteoporosis.Vertebroplasty - injection of bone cement into a compressed vertebra.OutlookMost people who have an episode of non-specific low back pain improve quickly, and usually recover within 4 weeks. A positive outlook can help you recover more quickly. However, a minority of people will have ongoing problems - the risk of this happening increases with age. Older people are particularly at risk of having recurrent episodes of back pain.PreventionIf you’ve hurt your back already, then prevention is probably the last thing on your mind. However, some people have further episodes of back pain after the initial episode has resolved, so it’s worth finding out what you can do to protect your back from further attacks of back pain.The back is at least risk of injury when it is in its neutral position. Anything that forces it to tilt can cause strains to the ligaments, and pain can result. Twisting when lifting is one common cause of low back pain.The way we lift, sit at our desks, operate machinery and do hundreds of minor tasks can all affect our backs. Trying to keep the back in a neutral position at all times will reduce the risk of backache. This is particularly important with tasks such as gardening and housework, which involve a lot of bending. Whenever possible, bend the knees and keep the back straight when doing things at ground level.Here are some things you can do to try to avoid back pain.Maintain good posture. Try to sit and stand with a ‘neutral spine’ (a physiotherapist or pilates instructor will be able to show you this). Use your legs to walk up hills (not your back) by staying upright and not bending forwards. Slow down if you have to, to maintain good posture. Sit with your knees slightly higher than your hips.Stay active. Low impact exercise, such as walking or swimming can strengthen the back muscles and the muscles of the core, which allows them to support the spine correctly. Regular exercise can help with strength and flexibility, ease pain and stiffness and protect bones.Back strengthening exercises. Try to do these every week at least a couple of times. A physiotherapist or pilates instructor will be able to help you with the best exercises for your back.Avoid heavy lifting. Avoid lifting weights that are too heavy for you. Learn correct lifting techniques - bend from the knees and use your legs to push up, and contract your abdominal muscles before you lift. Don’t twist when you lift, and don’t bend from the waist. Push, rather than pull, heavy objects.Pay attention to your carrying technique. Try not to load down one side of your body with heavy bags or handbags - distribute the load as evenly as possible and keep your shoulders square. Swap sides often when carrying heavy bags.Avoid stress. Being stressed or anxious leads to muscle tension by causing blood vessels to narrow, reducing blood flow and oxygen to the body’s tissues. This leads to a build-up of waste products, which cause the muscles to spasm or contract. Being under constant stress causes the muscles to tighten and shorten, causing pain - often in the neck and back.Stretching. Stretching can help to reduce muscle tension. Tight hamstrings - the muscles down the back of your thigh - can be a cause of low back pain, so make sure your hamstrings are stretched out and not too tight.Not smoking. Smoking is linked to the development of low back pain. Doctors think this is due to reduced blood flow (which reduces the nutrients reaching the back), jarring from coughing and the fact that the bones of smokers have a lower mineral content.Eat a healthy diet. Some foods have been shown to have anti-inflammatory or pain-reducing properties. An anti-inflammatory diet, such as the Mediterranean diet, may help keep inflammation at bay and so lessen your chance of back pain.Stay hydrated. As we age, the soft gel-like centre of our intervertebral discs dries out and the discs become less effective as shock absorbers. Staying hydrated may go some way to help keep the discs plumped up and slow down this process.Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight can make it harder to move about and puts more strain on your body. Being overweight also creates inflammation in the body.Avoid high heels. High heels alter your body’s alignment and put a strain on your back. Unsupportive footwear, such as thongs or flipflops, do not support the arches of the feet and so can lead to poor posture and back pain. Last Reviewed: 2 October 2017
Low back pain can cause a wide variety of symptoms and signs depending on the precise cause of the pain as reviewed above. Symptoms that can be associated with low back pain include numbness and/or tingling of the lower extremities, incontinence of urine or stool, inability to walk without worsening pain, lower extremity weakness, atrophy (decreased in size) of the lower extremity muscles, rash, fever, chills, weight loss, abdominal pains, burning on urination, dizziness, joint pain, and fatigue.
Enthoven WT, Geuze J, Scheele J, et al. Prevalence and "Red Flags" Regarding Specified Causes of Back Pain in Older Adults Presenting in General Practice. Phys Ther. 2016 Mar;96(3):305–12. PubMed #26183589. How many cases of back pain in older adults have a serious underlying cause? Only about 6% … but 5% of those are fractures (which are serious, but they aren’t cancer either). The 1% is divided amongst all other serious causes. In this study of 669 patients, a vertebral fracture was found in 33 of them, and the chances of this diagnosis was higher in older patients with more intense pain in the upper back, and (duh) trauma. BACK TO TEXT
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.
This information is not designed to replace a physician's independent judgment about the appropriateness or risks of a procedure for a given patient. Always consult your doctor about your medical conditions or back problem. SpineUniverse does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Use of the SpineUniverse.com site is conditional upon your acceptance of our User Agreement
How to: Stand tall, feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, toes pointed out at 45-degree angles (a). Keep your back straight, knees over toes and your weight in the heels of your feet (b). Engage your glutes and thighs as you lower into a deep squat until thighs parallel to the ground (or as close as you can get them) (c). Powering through your heels, push up to return to starting position (d). Repeat.
Traction involves the use of weights and pulleys to apply constant or intermittent force to gradually “pull” the skeletal structure into better alignment. Some people experience pain relief while in traction, but that relief is usually temporary. Once traction is released the back pain tends to return. There is no evidence that traction provides any longterm benefits for people with low back pain.
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.
There is controversy and scientific uncertainty about trigger points. It’s undeniable that mammals suffer from sensitive spots in our soft tissues … but their nature remains unclear, and the “tiny cramp” theory could be wrong. The tiny cramp theory is formally known as the “expanded integrated hypothesis,” and it has been prominently criticized by Quintner et al (and not many others). However, it’s the mostly widely accepted explanation for now. BACK TO TEXT
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.
Spinal fusion is used to strengthen the spine and prevent painful movements in people with degenerative disc disease or spondylolisthesis (following laminectomy). The spinal disc between two or more vertebrae is removed and the adjacent vertebrae are “fused” by bone grafts and/or metal devices secured by screws. The fusion can be performed through the abdomen, a procedure known as an anterior lumbar interbody fusion, or through the back, called posterior fusion. Spinal fusion may result in some loss of flexibility in the spine and requires a long recovery period to allow the bone grafts to grow and fuse the vertebrae together. Spinal fusion has been associated with an acceleration of disc degeneration at adjacent levels of the spine.
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How to: Get into a high plank position on the floor, hands planted under your shoulders, butt down (a). Engage your abs by pulling your belly button in towards your spine (b). Squeeze your left glute to lift your left leg two inches off the ground, keeping your leg straight (c). Tap your left leg out to the side, then back to starting position. Repeat, then switch legs (d).
Just because your hip flexor region feels sore doesn’t necessarily mean the muscles there are tight — in fact, they might need strengthening. This is where that sports science debate we mentioned earlier comes into play. It’s important to identify whether you’re tight or if the muscles are weak. Again, the Thomas Test will help you identify if you’re maybe stretching something that actually needs strengthening.
Imagine not being able to climb stairs, bend over, or even walk Changes in hip joint muscle-tendon lengths with mode of locomotion. Riley, P.O., Franz, J., Dicharry, J., et al. Center for Applied Biomechanics, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA. Gait & Posture, 2010 Feb; 31 (2): 279-83.. All pretty essential if you ask us! But that’s what our bodies would be like without our hip flexor muscles. Never heard of ‘em? It’s about time we share why they’re so important, how your desk job might be making them weaker (ah!), and the best ways to stretch them out.
When you're working to strengthen the core, you'll want to focus on exercises that don't exacerbate lower back issues. "It's important to find out which movements (flexion, extension, rotation) cause pain or discomfort and to avoid those movements, while continuing to work into ranges that are not provoking," Dircksen says. Crockford suggests focusing on exercises that keep the core stable and avoiding twisting movements to avoid exacerbating pain.
In most episodes of low back pain, a specific underlying cause is not identified or even looked for, with the pain believed to be due to mechanical problems such as muscle or joint strain. If the pain does not go away with conservative treatment or if it is accompanied by "red flags" such as unexplained weight loss, fever, or significant problems with feeling or movement, further testing may be needed to look for a serious underlying problem. In most cases, imaging tools such as X-ray computed tomography are not useful and carry their own risks. Despite this, the use of imaging in low back pain has increased. Some low back pain is caused by damaged intervertebral discs, and the straight leg raise test is useful to identify this cause. In those with chronic pain, the pain processing system may malfunction, causing large amounts of pain in response to non-serious events.
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.
The use of lumbar supports in the form of wide elastic bands that can be tightened to provide support to the lower back and abdominal muscles to prevent low back pain remains controversial. Such supports are widely used despite a lack of evidence showing that they actually prevent pain. Multiple studies have determined that the use of lumbar supports provides no benefit in terms of the prevention and treatment of back pain. Although there have been anecdotal case reports of injury reduction among workers using lumbar support belts, many companies that have back belt programs also have training and ergonomic awareness programs. The reported injury reduction may be related to a combination of these or other factors. Furthermore, some caution is advised given that wearing supportive belts may actually lead to or aggravate back pain by causing back muscles to weaken from lack of use.
Overall, the outcome for acute low back pain is positive. Pain and disability usually improve a great deal in the first six weeks, with complete recovery reported by 40 to 90%. In those who still have symptoms after six weeks, improvement is generally slower with only small gains up to one year. At one year, pain and disability levels are low to minimal in most people. Distress, previous low back pain, and job satisfaction are predictors of long-term outcome after an episode of acute pain. Certain psychological problems such as depression, or unhappiness due to loss of employment may prolong the episode of low back pain. Following a first episode of back pain, recurrences occur in more than half of people.
Whether you lift heavy items for your job or simply have a slipped disk from a pesky athletic injury, lower back pain is likely to plague you at some point in your life. Low back pain can result from an acute injury or from chronic overuse that leads to arthritis. This, in turn, can break down the fluid-filled disks in your spine that act as shock absorbers. Whatever the cause, there are some practices you can do to strengthen your back and keep lower back pain at bay.
I am a science writer and a former Registered Massage Therapist with a decade of experience treating tough pain cases. I was the Assistant Editor of ScienceBasedMedicine.org for several years. I’ve written hundreds of articles and several books, and I’m known for readable but heavily referenced analysis, with a touch of sass. I am a runner and ultimate player. • more about me • more about PainScience.com
The hip joint is designed to withstand a fair amount of wear and tear, but it’s not indestructible. For example, when you walk, a cushion of cartilage helps prevent friction as the hip bone moves in its socket. With age and use, this cartilage can wear down or become damaged, or the hip bone itself can be fractured during a fall. In fact, more than 300,000 adults over 65 are hospitalized for hip fractures each year, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.
Kneel with a wall or pillar behind you, knees hips-width apart and toes touching the wall. Arch your back to lean back while keeping your hips stacked over your knees. Take your arms overhead and touch your palms into the wall behind you. This bend does not need to be extremely deep to feel a great stretch in the hips and strength in the lower back.
The lower back where most back pain occurs includes the five vertebrae (referred to as L1-L5) in the lumbar region, which supports much of the weight of the upper body. The spaces between the vertebrae are maintained by round, rubbery pads called intervertebral discs that act like shock absorbers throughout the spinal column to cushion the bones as the body moves. Bands of tissue known as ligaments hold the vertebrae in place, and tendons attach the muscles to the spinal column. Thirty-one pairs of nerves are rooted to the spinal cord and they control body movements and transmit signals from the body to the brain.
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.
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.”
How to: Position yourself on your hands and knees, in tabletop position. Engage your abs engaged by pulling your belly button in towards your spine (a). Keeping your hips pointed towards the ground and leg bent to a 90-degree angle, raise your left knee out to the side as high as you can (b). Pause at the top, then return to starting position (c). Repeat, then switch legs.
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.
Even though low back pain can sometimes be treated without major disruption to a person's life, athletes are often reluctant to seek medical help. Many of them deny or minimize complaints in order to avoid consequences, such as: having to decrease activity in order to recover, losing a position or being removed from a team, missing a competition, or letting the team down. Some athletes simply do not want to bother seeing a doctor for pain; they hope it will recover on its own.
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.