Low back pain is an ache or discomfort in the area of the lower part of the back and spinal column. The lower spinal column has many small bones and muscles that surround and protect the spinal cord and nerves. Low back pain is common and affects most adults at some point in their lives.
|Bones of the Lower Back|
|Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.|
There are many possible causes for low back pain, but in most cases it is unknown. Some causes of back pain may include:
- Muscle strains or ligament sprains
- Disc degeneration
- Spinal deformities
- Health conditions
Low back pain in more common in older adults.
Factors that increase your chance of low back pain include:
General factors, such as:
- Certain activities, such as lifting, bending, or twisting
- Prior back injury
- Prior back surgery
Health conditions, such as:
- Herniated disc —the cushions between the bones of the spine develop a bulge
- Degenerative diseases, such as arthritis
- Fractures due to trauma and/or osteoporosis
- Spinal stenosis —narrowing of the spinal canal
- Spondylolisthesis —slippage of a bone in the lower back
- Ankylosing spondylitis —an autoimmune disease involving the spine
- Cauda equina syndrome —nerve roots at the base of the spinal cord are compressed
Occupational factors, such as:
- Bending, twisting, or reaching
- Exposure to vibrations
- Heavy manual labor
- Heavy lifting
Psychosocial factors, such as:
Pain is usually restricted to the low back. It can get worse with back motion, sitting, standing, bending, and twisting. If a nerve is irritated, the pain may spread into the buttock or leg on the affected side. Muscle weakness or numbness may occur.
When Should I Call My Doctor?
Often, back pain improves with self-treatment. However, some serious symptoms may occur. They may require more immediate medical attention. Call your doctor if back pain:
- Is severe or gets significantly worse
- Has not started to improve within a week
- Causes difficulty walking, standing, or moving
- Is worse at night or worse when you lie down
- Spreads down your legs
- Comes with pain or throbbing in your abdomen
- Is new and you are over age 50 years old
Is associated with:
- Numbness, weakness, or tingling in your buttocks, genitals, or legs
- Loss of bowel or bladder control
- Difficulty with urination
- Fever, unexplained weight loss, or other signs of illness
You should call your doctor if you have back pain and a history of cancer or osteoporosis. You should also call if you have a history of recent infection, steroid use, or IV drug use.
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. The exam will focus on your back, hips, and legs. The doctor may test for strength, flexibility, sensation, and reflexes.
Imaging tests are rarely needed. They may be done for pain that is severe or does not respond to treatment. If needed, imaging tests options include:
Your doctor may recommend other tests to help diagnose or eliminate any causes of your back pain.
Treatment options include:
Bed rest is not generally recommended. It may be suggested for no more than 1-2 days in those with severe pain. Certain activities may be restricted for a period of time and then resumed as soon as possible. Recovery time may be shortened by staying active and exercising.
Your doctor may advise:
- Over-the-counter or prescription pain relievers
- Topical pain relievers that are applied to the skin
- Muscle relaxants for muscle spasms
Physical therapy may include:
Cognitive behavioral therapy is often used to help manage chronic pain and stress. It is a form of talk therapy that may be done individually or in a group. A therapist will help you identify negative thoughts and teach you to unlearn these thought patterns. You will also learn new, helpful habits to manage your pain with minimal disruption to your life.
Some people find pain relief from:
To help reduce your chance of low back pain:
- Begin a safe exercise program with the advice of your doctor.
- Practice good posture to reduce pressure on your spine.
- Avoid sitting or standing in one position for long periods of time.
- Use proper body movement when playing sports, exercising, or lifting heavy objects.
- Consider job retraining if your work requires a lot of heavy lifting or sitting.
North American Spine Society http://www.spine.org
Ortho Info—American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons http://www.orthoinfo.org
Canadian Orthopaedic Association http://www.coa-aco.org
Canadian Orthopaedic Foundation http://www.canorth.org
Acute low back pain. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T114958/Acute-low-back-pain . Updated October 25, 2017. Accessed November 15, 2017.
Bratton RL. Assessment and management of acute low back pain. Am Fam Physician. 1999;60:2299-2309.
Chronic low back pain. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T116935/Chronic-low-back-pain . Updated June 30, 2017. Accessed November 15, 2017.
Dahm KT, Brurberg KG, et al. Advice to rest in bed versus advice to stay active for acute low-back pain and sciatica. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2010;(6):CD007612.
Hagen KB, Hilde G, et al. Bedrest for acute low back pain and sciatica. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2000;(2):CD001254.
Katz JN. Lumbar disc disorders and low-back pain: Socioeconomic factors and consequences. J Bone Joint Surg Am. 2006;88 Suppl 2:21.
Patel AT, Ogle AA. Diagnosis and management of acute low back pain. Am Fam Physician. 2000;62:2414-2415.
9/16/2008 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance https://www.dynamed.com : Kalus SM, Kornman LH, et al. Managing back pain in pregnancy using a support garment: a randomised trial. BJOG. 2008;115:68-75.
12/16/2008 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance https://www.dynamed.com : Furlan AD, Imamura M, et al. Massage for low-back pain. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2008;CD001929.
1/30/2009 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance https://www.dynamed.com : Yuan J, Purepong N, et al. Effectiveness of acupuncture for low back pain: a systematic review. Spine. 2008;33:E887-E900.
2/17/2009 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance https://www.dynamed.com : Bigos SJ, Holland J, et al. High-quality controlled trials on preventing episodes of back problems: systematic literature review in working-age adults. Spine J. 2009;9:147-168.
2/17/2009 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance https://www.dynamed.com : Chou R, Fu R, et al. Imaging strategies for low-back pain: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Lancet. 2009;373:463-472.
2/24/2009 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance https://www.dynamed.com : Sahar T, Cohen M, et al. Insoles for prevention and treatment of back pain. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2009;(1):CD005275.
9/2/2009 DynaMed Systematic Literature Surveillance https://www.dynamed.com : Urquhart D, Hoving J, et al. Antidepressants for non-specific low back pain. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2009;(3):CD001703.
12/17/2010 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance https://www.dynamed.com : Andersen LL, Christensen KB, et al. Effect of physical exercise interventions on musculoskeletal pain in all body regions among office workers: aone-year randomized controlled trial. Man Ther. 2010;15(1):100-104.
10/21/2011 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance https://www.dynamed.com : Chan CW, Mok NW, et al. Aerobic exercise training in addition to conventional physiotherapy for chronic low back pain: a randomized controlled trial. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2011;92(10):1681-1685.
11/29/2011 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance https://www.dynamed.com : Gatti R, Faccendini S, et al. Efficacy of trunk balance exercises for individuals with chronic low back pain: a randomized clinical trial. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2011;41(8):542-552.
11/25/2013 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance. https://www.dynamed.com : Wegner I, Widyahening IS, et al. Traction for low-back pain with or without sciatica. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013;8.
3/24/2015 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance. https://www.dynamed.com : Jarvik JG, Gold LS, et al. Association of early imaging for back pain with clinical outcomes in older adults. JAMA. 2015;313(11):1143-1153.
12/14/2016 DynaMed Plus Systematic Literature Surveillance https://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T910282/Counseling-and-education-for-chronic-low-back-pain : Cherkin DC, Sherman KJ, Balderson BH, et al. Effect of mindfulness-based stress reduction vs cognitive behavioral therapy or usual care on back pain and functional limitations in adults with chronic low back pain: a randomized clinical trial. JAMA 2016;315(12):1240-1249.
5/23/2017 DynaMed Plus Systematic Literature Surveillance https://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T115166/Sciatica : National Guideline Centre. Low back pain and sciatica in over 16s: assessment and management. London (UK): National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE); 2016 Nov 30. 18 p.
- Reviewer: EBSCO Medical Review Board Teresa Briedwell, PT, DPT, OCS, CSCS
- Review Date: 11/2018
- Update Date: 05/23/2017