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.
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.
Back pain can be confusing enough as it is. Sometimes it may be difficult deciphering if the pain is even coming from your back, and trying to figure out what causes it can be mind-boggling. And many experts recommend focusing on mechanical sources of your back pain rather than anatomical sources of your pain. Is it a herniated disc, bulging disc, or facet joint arthritis causing your problem? It can be hard to decide, so focusing on what you are doing and the positions you put your back in may be the best way to determine the cause of your back pain.
Strength training is another key part of the “do” category, Dr. Vasileff says. “It’s a good idea to focus on quad, hamstring, and glute strength,” he says. These muscles surround your hips and provide support, along with your core—which is another area to focus on. “Strengthening your core helps to normalize your walking pattern and stabilize how your pelvis and hips move,” Dr. Vasileff says. That translates to less pain and better hip mobility.
If you are experiencing low back pain, you are not alone. An estimated 75 to 85 percent of all Americans will experience some form of back pain during their lifetime. Although low back pain can be quite debilitating and painful, in about 90 percent of all cases, pain improves without surgery. However, 50 percent of all patients who suffer from an episode of low back pain will have a recurrent episode within one year.
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Compressive pain is a result of pressure or irritation on the spinal cord, nerves that leave the spine. For example, if an intervertebral disc herniates (usually called a ruptured disc) and pushes into the spinal canal, it can cause problems with the nerve. Usually this pressure or irritation causes pain, numbness, and muscle weakness where the nerve travels.
It’s a common issue, says Prevention advisor Rob Danoff, director of family and emergency medicine residency programs at Aria Health in Philadelphia. "For people who sit a long time at work, the hip flexors and rotators become tight, and the gluteal muscles become weak," he says. "This combination negatively affects our ability to walk, maintain proper posture, and the stability of our spine."
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.
You may hear a clicking noise when you move your hip, but that sound is not necessarily a hip flexor issue. Siegrist says the clicking isn't generally the hip flexor alone and often comes from a moving part, like the joint. "Maybe there is a loose body in the joint or loose cartilage at the edge of the hip joint that is mechanically getting irritated,” she says.
Cycling: The repetitive movements of cycling can place a strain on your hip joints, not to mention that it can also affect your posture! If you really must cycle, make sure your bike is professionally fitted and that you properly warm up and stretch your hip flexors before getting on your bike. I’d recommend choosing an alternative though, or at least speaking to your doctor first!
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To ease the pain and lower your odds of an injury, don’t try to do too much at once. “Start with just 10 minutes,” says Arina Garg, MD, a rheumatology fellow at The Center for Excellence for Arthritis and Rheumatology at the Louisiana University Health Sciences Center. “Every few days, increase that time by 5 to 10 minutes.” Your goal is to work up to 30 minutes of aerobic exercise, 5 days a week.
There are a number of ways to classify low back pain with no consensus that any one method is best. There are three general types of low back pain by cause: mechanical back pain (including nonspecific musculoskeletal strains, herniated discs, compressed nerve roots, degenerative discs or joint disease, and broken vertebra), non-mechanical back pain (tumors, inflammatory conditions such as spondyloarthritis, and infections), and referred pain from internal organs (gallbladder disease, kidney stones, kidney infections, and aortic aneurysm, among others). Mechanical or musculoskeletal problems underlie most cases (around 90% or more), and of those, most (around 75%) do not have a specific cause identified, but are thought to be due to muscle strain or injury to ligaments. Rarely, complaints of low back pain result from systemic or psychological problems, such as fibromyalgia and somatoform disorders.
A sedentary lifestyle can lead to having weak and tight hip flexors as they are always in the shortened position. Tight hip flexors can lead to a limited range of motion, poor posture, lower back, and hip pain, and even injuries. These muscles need to get a workout when you are standing and doing movements such as raising your leg to climb stairs, run, or ride a bicycle.
Kidneys — The kidneys are a matched pair. One painful kidney can cause back pain on one side or the other. Kidney pain can feel like back pain, and may occur on only one side. It is usually quite lateral, and just barely low enough to qualify as “low” back pain. However, when kidney stones descend through the ureters, they can cause (terrible) pain in the low back. Kidney stone pain is often so severe and develops so rapidly that it isn’t mistaken for a back pain problem.
Degenerative Conditions: Sometimes, degenerative conditions that are the normal result of aging may cause your low back pain. Conditions like spinal stenosis, arthritis, or degenerative disc disease can all cause pain. Congenital conditions, like spondylolisthesis or scoliosis, can also cause your back pain. For most degenerative back problems, movement and exercise have been proven to be effective in treating these conditions. A visit to your physical therapist can help you determine the correct progression of back exercises for your specific condition.
How to: Lie on your back with your right knee bent and foot flat on the floor (a). With your left leg fully extended, press into your right foot to shift onto your left hip. This is your starting position (b). Then, squeeze your right glutes to press your left hip open until you feel a stretch, pause, then return to start. That’s one rep (c). Perform six to eight reps, then repeat on the opposite side.
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.
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.
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.