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Low Back Pain

back-painNearly everyone at some point has lower back pain that interferes with work, routine daily activities, or recreation. Lower back pain (LBP) is the most common cause of job-related disability and a leading contributor to missed work. Back pain is the second most common neurological ailment in the United States, second only to headache. Fortunately, most occurrences of LBP go away within a few days. However, others can take much longer to resolve or may lead to more serious conditions.

Learn more about the causes of low back pain.

Acute Lower Back Pain 

Acute or short-term lower back pain generally lasts a few days to a few weeks. Most acute back pain results from trauma to the area or a disorder like arthritis. Pain from trauma may be caused by a sports injury, work around the house or a sudden jolt like a car accident. Symptoms may range from muscle ache to shooting or stabbing pain, limited flexibility and ROM or inability to stand straight. Occasionally, pain felt in one part of the body may 'radiate' to elsewhere, like the legs, buttocks or feet.

Chronic Lower Back Pain

Chronic back pain is measured by duration and is defined as pain that persists for more than 3 months. It is often progressive and the specific cause can be difficult to determine.

The back is made of bones, muscles and tissues that form the posterior part of the body's trunk from the neck to the pelvis. The centerpiece is the spinal column, which not only supports the upper body's weight but houses and protects the spinal cord, which is the delicate nervous system structure that carries signals that control the body's movements and convey its sensations.

Stacked on top of one another are more than 30 bones, called vertebrae that form the spinal column. Each of these bones contains a round-shaped hole that when stacked on top of one another, creates a channel that surrounds the spinal cord. The cord descends from the base of the brain and extends to just below the rib cage. Small nerve roots enter and emerge from the spinal cord through spaces between the vertebrae. The spaces between the vertebrae are maintained by round, spongy pads of cartilage called intervertebral discs that allow for flexibility in the lower back and act much like shock absorbers throughout the spinal column to cushion the bones as the body moves. Bands of tissue known as ligaments and tendons hold the vertebrae in place and attach the muscles to the spinal column.

The spine has 4 regions:

  • 7 cervical (neck) vertebrae - C1 through C7
  • 12 thoracic (upper back) vertebrae - T1 through T12
  • 5 lumbar (low back) vertebrae - L1 through L5
  • Sacrum and Coccyx - group of bones fused together at base of spine

Quick Lower Back Pain Treatment Tips

Following any period of prolonged inactivity, begin a program of regular low-impact exercises. Speed walking, swimming or stationary bike riding 30 minutes a day can increase muscle strength and flexibility. Ask your neurosurgeon or physical therapist for a list of low-impact exercises appropriate for your age that can assist in the treatment of lower back pain. 

  • Always stretch before exercise or any other strenuous activity.
  • Don't slouch when standing or sitting. When standing, keep your weight balanced on your feet. Your back supports weight most easily when curvature is reduced.
  • At home or work, make sure your work surface is at a comfortable height for you.
  • Sit in a chair with good lumbar support and proper position and height for the task. Keep your shoulders back. Switch sitting positions often and periodically walk around the office or gently stretch muscles to relieve tension. A pillow or rolled-up towel placed behind the small of your back can provide some lumbar support.  If you must sit for a long period of time, rest your feet on a low stool or a stack of books.
  • Wear comfortable, low-heeled shoes.
  • Sleep on your side to reduce any curve in your spine. Always sleep on a firm surface.
  • Ask for help when transferring an ill or injured family member from a reclining to a sitting position or when moving the patient from a chair to a bed.
  • Don't try to lift objects too heavy for you. Lift with your knees, pull in your stomach muscles, and keep your head down and in line with your straight back. Keep the object close to your body. Do not twist when lifting.
  • Maintain proper nutrition and diet to reduce and prevent excessive weight, especially weight around the waistline that taxes lower back muscles. A diet with sufficient daily intake of calcium, phosphorus, and vitamin D helps to promote new bone growth.
  • If you smoke, quit. Smoking reduces blood flow to the lower spine and causes the spinal discs to degenerate.

Information provided by the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke ®