Low Back Pain

What is low back pain?

Pain and stiffness in the lower back is a common condition. It is one of the most common reasons people miss work.

In the center of your lower back are 5 bones in the spine called lumbar vertebrae. Muscles and ligaments help keep the vertebrae in their proper position. In between the vertebrae are gel-like shock absorbers called disks. Nerves that lead to the lower body pass through the bones of the lower back.

What is the cause?

You may have pain if any part of your back is injured, strained, or affected by illness.

The most common causes of back pain include:

  • Frequent lifting or carrying of heavy objects
  • Spending a lot of time sitting or standing in one position or bending over
  • Being overweight

Less common causes of back pain include:

  • A disk that bulges or is pushed out of place by injury or a severe strain. A bulging (herniated) disk can pinch the nerves that pass through the bones, leading to pain in the legs.
  • Injuries caused by a fall, unusually strenuous exercise, or even violent sneezing or coughing
  • Swelling and irritation from an infection or an immune system problem
  • A congenital condition (a problem that you were born with)
  • A degenerative condition (a problem that causes the bones, joints, disks, or muscles to break down, like arthritis)

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms include:

  • Pain in the back or legs
  • Weakness in the legs
  • Tingling or numbness in the legs or feet
  • Stiffness, spasms, or limited motion

The pain may be constant or may happen only in certain positions. It may get worse when you cough, sneeze, bend, twist, or strain during a bowel movement. The pain may be in only one spot or it may spread to other areas, most commonly down the buttocks and into the back of the thigh.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will review your medical history and examine you. You may have X-rays of your back.

How is it treated?

The treatment for low back pain depends on the cause. Your healthcare provider may recommend:

  • Rest. It’s best to try to stay active, so try not to rest in bed longer than 1 to 2 days or the time your provider recommends.
  • Exercise. Your provider may recommend physical therapy or exercises that you can do at home.
  • Medicine. Several types of medicines may help lessen back pain. Take all medicine as recommended by your healthcare provider.
  • Surgery. Depending on the cause of your back pain and if you keep having symptoms, you may need to have surgery. However, most common causes of back pain don’t need surgery.

How can I take care of myself?

To help relieve pain:

  • Put an ice pack, gel pack, or package of frozen vegetables, wrapped in a cloth on the painful area every 3 to 4 hours for up to 20 minutes at a time.
  • Take an anti-inflammatory medicine, such as ibuprofen, or other medicine as directed by your healthcare provider. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, may cause stomach bleeding and other problems. These risks increase with age. Read the label and take as directed. Unless recommended by your healthcare provider, do not take for more than 10 days.
  • Put a hot water bottle or electric heating pad on your back. Cover the hot water bottle with a towel or set the heating pad on low so you don’t burn your skin.

    Try putting moist heat on the injured area for 10 to 15 minutes at a time before you do warm-up and stretching exercises. Moist heat may help relax your muscles and make it easier to move your body. Moist heat includes heat patches or moist heating pads that you can purchase at most drugstores, a wet washcloth or towel that has been heated in the dryer, or a hot shower.

    Don’t use heat if you have swelling.

  • Get a back massage by someone trained in giving massages.
  • Talk with a counselor if your back pain is related to tension caused by emotional problems.

Pain is the best way to judge the pace you should set for increasing your activity and exercise. Minor discomfort, stiffness, soreness, and mild aches don’t need to limit your activity.

Ask your healthcare provider:

  • How and when you will hear your test results
  • How long it will take to recover from this condition
  • If there are activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
  • How to take care of yourself at home
  • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them

Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup.

How can I help prevent low back pain?

Here are some of the things you can do so there is less strain on your back:

  • Keep your abdominal and back muscles strong. Get some exercise every day and include stretching and warm-up exercises suggested by your provider or physical therapist. Exercising regularly will not only help your back. It will also help keep you healthier overall.
  • Practice good posture.
    • Stand with your head up, shoulders straight, chest forward, weight balanced evenly on both feet, and pelvis tucked in.
    • Whenever you sit, sit in a straight-backed chair and hold your spine against the back of the chair.
    • Use a footrest for one foot when you stand or sit in one spot for a long time. This keeps your back straight.
  • Protect your back.
    • When you need to move a heavy object, don’t face the object and push with your arms. Turn around and use your back to push backwards so the strain is taken by your legs.
    • When you lift a heavy object, bend your knees and hips and keep your back straight. If you do a lot of heavy lifting, wear a belt designed to support your back. Avoid lifting heavy objects higher than your waist.
    • Carry packages close to your body, with your arms bent.
    • Lie on your side with your knees bent when you sleep or rest. It may help to put a pillow between your knees. Put a pillow under your knees when you sleep on your back. You may need to avoid sleeping on your stomach.
  • Lose weight if you are overweight.
Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-09-25
Last reviewed: 2014-09-15
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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