Back “spasms” are a largely a myth — there’s no such thing a sustained painful contractions of muscles in otherwise healthy people (see Cramps, Spasms, Tremors & Twitches) — but the kernel of truth in the idea of “spasms” may be the idea of trigger points, which are hypothetical “micro cramps,” tiny patches of painfully contracting muscle. Although this idea is controversial, it is nevertheless one of the most likely explanations for common aches and pains that mostly stick to one area (especially the back) and have no other obvious cause. See Back Pain & Trigger Points. BACK TO TEXT
But how can you tell? It can be tricky. This is a concise, readable guide to symptoms that need better-safe-than-sorry investigation with your doctor. (It’s basically just a plain English version of clinical guidelines for doctors.9) In other words, this article explains the difference between “dangerous” and “just painful” as clearly as possible. Tables, checklists, and examples ahead.
Coccydynia is an inflammation of the bony area (tailbone or coccyx) located between the buttocks. Coccydynia is associated with pain and tenderness at the tip of the tailbone between the buttocks. Pain is often worsened by sitting. There are many causes of tailbone pain that can mimic coccydynia including: fracture, pilonidal cysts, infection, and sciatica. Treatment methods include medication and rest.
3. Tendinitis and bursitis Many tendons around the hip connect the muscles to the joint. These tendons can easily become inflamed if you overuse them or participate in strenuous activities. One of the most common causes of tendinitis at the hip joint, especially in runners, is iliotibial band syndrome — the iliotibial band is the thick span of tissue that runs from the outer rim of your pelvis to the outside of your knee.
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.
While a sharp pain in the hip, groin, pelvis, or thigh is an obvious sign of a hip flexor injury, pain in the lower back and leg are easy to misdiagnose. After all, it’s natural to assume that radiating pain in the leg or lower back originate from these areas. Unfortunately, diagnosing the source of a patient’s pain is not always straightforward. In fact, it’s possible for patients to go years with a misdiagnosed injury.
Non-mechanical Disease Processes: Sometimes, non-mechanical disease processes like cancer, kidney stones, or a tumor may cause low back pain. These symptoms are usually, but not always, accompanied by other symptoms like unexpected weight loss, fever, or malaise that indicate a non-mechanical cause of your pain. These diseases are rare, but they can happen, so if your back pain continues for more than a few weeks after physical therapy treatment begins, a visit to your doctor is certainly in order to rule out a sinister problem.
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.)
Kneel on your mat with your thighs perpendicular to the floor and tops of your feet facing down. Bring your inner knees together. Slide your feet apart so they are slightly wider than your hips and press the tops of your feet evenly into the mat. Slowly sit down between your feet. Use your hands to turn the top of your thighs inward. Then, lean back onto your forearms and slowly lower torso to floor. Hold for at least 30 seconds.
When was the last time you got on your gym's abductor or adductor machine and got in a good workout? It's probably been a while. Both are machines that don't get a lot of use, and they are often the target of coaches' ridicule on those "useless gym moves we should all skip" lists. Perhaps rightly so, especially if you're hopping on those machines hoping for a slimming effect.
Shingles (herpes zoster) is an acute infection of the nerves that supply sensation to the skin, generally at one or several spinal levels and on one side of the body (right or left). Patients with shingles usually have had chickenpox earlier in life. The herpes virus that causes chickenpox is believed to exist in a dormant state within the spinal nerve roots long after the chickenpox resolves. In people with shingles, this virus reactivates to cause infection along the sensory nerve, leading to nerve pain and usually an outbreak of shingles (tiny blisters on the same side of the body and at the same nerve level). The back pain in patients with shingles of the lumbar area can precede the skin rash by days. Successive crops of tiny blisters can appear for several days and clear with crusty inflammation in one to two weeks. Patients occasionally are left with a more chronic nerve pain (postherpetic neuralgia). Treatment can involve symptomatic relief with lotions, such as calamine, or medications, such as acyclovir (Zovirax), for the infection and pregabalin (Lyrica) or lidocaine (Lidoderm) patches for the pain.
Running: Running may be good for boosting your cardiovascular health but it can be very strenuous if you have hip pain. The impact can upset your hip joints so instead focus on other forms of exercise. Walking is still a good option for hip pain if you really feel like working out in the great outdoors or you could instead try some strengthening exercises from the comfort of your own home.
Spondylolisthesis. This condition occurs when one vertebra slips over the adjacent one. There are 5 types of spondylolisthesis but the most common are secondary to a defect or fracture of the pars (between the facet joints) or mechanical instability of the facet joints (degenerative). The pain can be caused by instability (back) or compression of the nerves (leg).
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
Acupuncture is moderately effective for chronic low back pain. It involves the insertion of thin needles into precise points throughout the body. Some practitioners believe this process helps clear away blockages in the body’s life force known as Qi (pronounced chee). Others who may not believe in the concept of Qi theorize that when the needles are inserted and then stimulated (by twisting or passing a low-voltage electrical current through them) naturally occurring painkilling chemicals such as endorphins, serotonin, and acetylcholine are released. Evidence of acupuncture’s benefit for acute low back pain is conflicting and clinical studies continue to investigate its benefits.
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
Hip flexors. These hardworking muscles are crucial in foundational movements such as sitting, standing, walking and running — they act as a bridge connecting your torso to your lower body. Some muscles in this group can be notoriously weak or tight and those of you who have ever had issues with this part of your body will know the uncomfortable pain of either all too well. There’s a lot of debate in the world of sports science over how much you should strengthen and stretch your hip flexors — we’ll explain.
Bridge: Still lying on your back with your feet flat on floor, lift your hips and torso off the floor into a bridge. Then interlace your hands underneath your hips and press your shoulders and upper arms into the floor, lifting your hips higher. Hold for 10 seconds. Lower yourself slowly back down, rolling down from the top of your spine to your tailbone. Repeat three times.
^ Machado, GC; Maher, CG; Ferreira, PH; Pinheiro, MB; Lin, CW; Day, RO; McLachlan, AJ; Ferreira, ML (31 March 2015). "Efficacy and safety of paracetamol for spinal pain and osteoarthritis: systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised placebo controlled trials". BMJ (Clinical Research Ed.). 350: h1225. doi:10.1136/bmj.h1225. PMC 4381278. PMID 25828856.
How to: Sit down with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor in front of you (a). Place your right ankle on top of your left thigh and flex your right foot (b). Put your hands behind your body, fingertips facing away from your body and begin to press your hips toward your heels until you feel a stretch through your outer left hip. Keep your back tall and chest open (c). Hold for six to eight breaths, then repeat on the other side.
Strengthening exercises, beyond general daily activities, are not advised for acute low back pain, but may be an effective way to speed recovery from chronic or subacute low back pain. Maintaining and building muscle strength is particularly important for persons with skeletal irregularities. Health care providers can provide a list of beneficial exercises that will help improve coordination and develop proper posture and muscle balance. Evidence supports short- and long-term benefits of yoga to ease chronic low back pain.
It is sometimes hard for an aggressive athlete to consider changing training schedules. It is also hard to accept the fact that a serious disease may exist. All athletes who suffer from low back pain should seek medical advice. Some situations might require reducing or stopping athletic activity until the problem is resolved. The body's ability to be active is worth preserving.
If low back pain gets worse or does not improve after two to three days of home treatment, contact a primary-care physician. The physician can evaluate the patient and perform a neurological exam in the office to determine which nerve root is being irritated, as well as rule out other serious medical conditions. If there are clear signs that the nerve root is being compressed, a physician can prescribe medications to relieve the pain, swelling and irritation; he or she also may recommend limitation of activities. If these treatment options do not provide relief within two weeks, it may be time to consider other diagnostic studies and possibly surgery.