Low and lower back pain can vary from dull pain that develops gradually to sudden, sharp or persistent pain felt below the waist. Unfortunately, almost everyone, at some point during life will experience low back pain that may travel downward into the buttocks and sometimes into one or both lower extremities. The most common cause is muscle strain often related to heavy physical labor, lifting or forceful movement, bending or twisting into awkward positions, or standing in one position too long.
Emerging technologies such as X-rays gave physicians new diagnostic tools, revealing the intervertebral disc as a source for back pain in some cases. In 1938, orthopedic surgeon Joseph S. Barr reported on cases of disc-related sciatica improved or cured with back surgery. As a result of this work, in the 1940s, the vertebral disc model of low back pain took over, dominating the literature through the 1980s, aiding further by the rise of new imaging technologies such as CT and MRI. The discussion subsided as research showed disc problems to be a relatively uncommon cause of the pain. Since then, physicians have come to realize that it is unlikely that a specific cause for low back pain can be identified in many cases and question the need to find one at all as most of the time symptoms resolve within 6 to 12 weeks regardless of treatment.
Meanwhile, many non-dangerous problems can cause amazingly severe back pain. A muscle cramp is a good analogy — just think about how painful a Charley horse is! Regardless of what’s actually going on in there, muscle pain is probably the main thing that back pain patients are feeling. The phenomenon of trigger points — tiny muscle cramps, basically11 — could be the entire problem, or a complication that’s more painful and persistent than the original problem. It’s hard to overstate how painful trigger points can be, but they are not dangerous to anything but your comfort.
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.
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).
Stop listening to other people’s horror stories. You know the scenario: You are bent over in obvious pain, waiting to see the doctor, and the person next to you tells you a 10-minute tale of how their Uncle Gordon had low back pain that required injections and surgery. But the pain still didn’t go away. Stop listening to these terrible stories. Most low back pain is short-lived and can be managed quite effectively with exercise and postural correction. Of course, some low back conditions are serious and require surgery, but that is a conversation you should have with your doctor, not the guy in the waiting room.
The vast majority of low back pain is mechanical in nature. In many cases, low back pain is associated with spondylosis, a term that refers to the general degeneration of the spine associated with normal wear and tear that occurs in the joints, discs, and bones of the spine as people get older. Some examples of mechanical causes of low back pain include:
This standard recommendation reinforces the alarming idea that low back pain that lasts longer than a few weeks is Really Bad News. It’s not. It’s a clue. It’s a reason for concern and alertness. But many cases of low back pain that last for 6 weeks will still go away. Once again, see the 2009 research published in the British Medical Journal, which showed that more than 30% of patients with “new” chronic low back pain will still recover without treatment. BACK TO TEXT
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."
Mechanical pain is often called back strain because it is linked with the movement, or "the mechanics" of the spine. This type of pain occurs when injury to the spine's discs, facet joints, ligaments, or muscles results in inflammation. It is called mechanical pain because it relates to the mechanics of your spine. The more you use your back, the more it hurts.
If low back pain occurs after a recent injury — such as a car accident, a fall or sports injury — call your primary-care physician immediately. If there are any neurological symptoms, seek medical care immediately. If there are no neurological problems (i.e. numbness, weakness, bowel and bladder dysfunction), the patient may benefit by beginning conservative treatment at home for two to three days. The patient may take anti-inflammatory medications such as aspirin or ibuprofen and restrict strenuous activities for a few days.
Massage therapy does not appear to provide much benefit for acute low back pain. A 2015 Cochrane review found that for acute low back pain massage therapy was better than no treatment for pain only in the short-term. There was no effect for improving function. For chronic low back pain massage therapy was no better than no treatment for both pain and function, though only in the short-term. The overall quality of the evidence was low and the authors conclude that massage therapy is generally not an effective treatment for low back pain.
Hip fractures, or a break in the hip bone, are another common cause of hip pain. Fractures of the hip often occur after falls in the elderly patient population. Osteoporosis puts this population at increased risk for hip fractures. Stress fractures are another form of fracture that can cause hip pain. Various risk factors increase one's risk of developing a stress fracture at the hip joint.
Six sciatica stretches for pain relief Sciatica is nerve pain that runs through the buttocks, down the back of the leg and into the ankle or foot. It is a symptom of several different back, pelvis, and hip problems, and can also occur as a result of pregnancy. Stretching can provide relief from the pain. Here, we suggest six stretches to perform every day. Read now
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).
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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.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) relieve pain and inflammation and include OTC formulations (ibuprofen, ketoprofen, and naproxen sodium). Several others, including a type of NSAID called COX-2 inhibitors, are available only by prescription. Long-term use of NSAIDs has been associated with stomach irritation, ulcers, heartburn, diarrhea, fluid retention, and in rare cases, kidney dysfunction and cardiovascular disease. The longer a person uses NSAIDs the more likely they are to develop side effects. Many other drugs cannot be taken at the same time a person is treated with NSAIDs because they alter the way the body processes or eliminates other medications.
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.
The only activity performed on a regular basis that fully extends the hip is walking and running. Hence as activity levels decrease so does the ability to extend the hip. This results in compensatory pelvic tilting and lumbar extension, with a reduction in the ability to accommodate uneven ground, negotiate obstacles, or attempt to change walking speed quickly. The compensatory pelvic tilt that accompanies tight hip flexors also predisposes the individual to postural problems and back pain. Hip stretches done on a regular basis can help you maintain extension range of motion and thereby improve function.
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.
Imaging is indicated when there are red flags, ongoing neurological symptoms that do not resolve, or ongoing or worsening pain. In particular, early use of imaging (either MRI or CT) is recommended for suspected cancer, infection, or cauda equina syndrome. MRI is slightly better than CT for identifying disc disease; the two technologies are equally useful for diagnosing spinal stenosis. Only a few physical diagnostic tests are helpful. The straight leg raise test is almost always positive in those with disc herniation. Lumbar provocative discography may be useful to identify a specific disc causing pain in those with chronic high levels of low back pain. Similarly, therapeutic procedures such as nerve blocks can be used to determine a specific source of pain. Some evidence supports the use of facet joint injections, transforminal epidural injections and sacroilliac injections as diagnostic tests. Most other physical tests, such as evaluating for scoliosis, muscle weakness or wasting, and impaired reflexes, are of little use.
^ Chou R, Loeser JD, Owens DK, Rosenquist RW, Atlas SJ, Baisden J, Carragee EJ, Grabois M, Murphy DR, Resnick DK, Stanos SP, Shaffer WO, Wall EM, American Pain Society Low Back Pain Guideline Panel (2009). "Interventional therapies, surgery, and interdisciplinary rehabilitation for low back pain: An evidence-based clinical practice guideline from the American Pain Society". Spine. 34 (10): 1066–77. doi:10.1097/BRS.0b013e3181a1390d. PMID 19363457.
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Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) involves wearing a battery-powered device consisting of electrodes placed on the skin over the painful area that generate electrical impulses designed to block incoming pain signals from the peripheral nerves. The theory is that stimulating the nervous system can modify the perception of pain. Early studies of TENS suggested that it elevated levels of endorphins, the body’s natural pain-numbing chemicals. More recent studies, however, have produced mixed results on its effectiveness for providing relief from low back pain.
It is unclear if among those with non-chronic back pain alternative treatments are useful. For chiropractic care or spinal manipulation therapy (SMT) it is unclear if it improves outcomes more or less than other treatments. Some reviews find that SMT results in equal or better improvements in pain and function when compared with other commonly used interventions for short, intermediate, and long-term follow-up; other reviews find it to be no more effective in reducing pain than either inert interventions, sham manipulation, or other treatments, and conclude that adding SMT to other treatments does improve outcomes. National guidelines reach different conclusions, with some not recommending spinal manipulation, some describing manipulation as optional, and others recommending a short course for those who do not improve with other treatments. A 2017 review recommended spinal manipulation based on low quality evidence. Manipulation under anaesthesia, or medically assisted manipulation, has not enough evidence to make any confident recommendation.