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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The pain of back pain almost always makes it seem worse than it is. The most worrisome causes of back pain rarely cause severe pain, and many common problems (like slipped discs) are usually much less serious than people fear. Only about 1% of back pain is ominous, and even then it’s often still treatable. Most of the 1% are due to cancer, autoimmune disease, or spinal cord damage.
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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 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. 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. 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.
Bone scans are used to detect and monitor infection, fracture, or disorders in the bone. A small amount of radioactive material is injected into the bloodstream and will collect in the bones, particularly in areas with some abnormality. Scanner-generated images can be used to identify specific areas of irregular bone metabolism or abnormal blood flow, as well as to measure levels of joint disease.
Epidural injections of steroid drugs are frequently used to treat sciatica, despite limited evidence for their effectiveness. Moreover, these treatments are based on the assumption that reducing local inflammation in the vertebral column will relieve pain, but an association between structural abnormalities, inflammation, and sciatica symptoms has not been clearly demonstrated. NINDS-funded researchers are using a new imaging technique that can detect inflammation to better understand what causes chronic sciatica pain and to provide evidence to inform treatment selection.
Lumbar herniated disc. The jelly-like center of a lumbar disc can break through the tough outer layer and irritate a nearby nerve root. The herniated portion of the disc is full of proteins that cause inflammation when they reach a nerve root, and inflammation as well as nerve compression cause nerve root pain. The disc wall is also richly supplied by nerve fibers, and a tear through the wall can cause severe pain.
In both younger and older patients, vertebral fractures take weeks to heal with rest and pain relievers. Compression fractures of vertebrae associated with osteoporosis can also be treated with a procedure called vertebroplasty or kyphoplasty, which can help to reduce pain. In this procedure, a balloon is inflated in the compressed vertebra, often returning some of its lost height. Subsequently, a "cement" (methymethacrylate) is injected into the balloon and remains to retain the structure and height of the body of the vertebra. Pain is relieved as the height of the collapsed vertebra is restored.