I've discussed a few times on my back pain blog that around 80% of adults have suffered from lower back pain in some time in their lives - a scarily high stat! So if you're one of those, you'll know exactly how frustrating, debilitating and outright annoying it can be. You'll be familiar with how it has a strict art of making you feel like you've aged 10 years even when getting up after being sat the sofa for an hour.
So I'm sure you would/will want to be able to get rid of the annoyance quicker than it cropped up! In this article I will explain what is actually going on, the common causes of both acute and chronic back pain along with how to prevent lower back pain creeping back on us when we least expect it. But first, let's chat through the anatomy of the lower back and what structures make up the often delicate part of the body.
What is lower back pain?
As the name suggests, lower back pain is a common and often discomforting condition characterised by pain or discomfort localised in the lumbar region of the spine, which is the lower part of the back. It can range from a dull, persistent ache to a sharp, sudden pain, and it may be caused by various factors. Muscular strain, poor posture, injuries, and conditions like herniated discs or degenerative disc disease are common culprits; with the dreaded sciatica coming along for the part as a common side-symptom. Lifestyle factors such as sedentary behaviour, improper lifting techniques, or obesity can also contribute to lower back pain.
The pain can be temporary or chronic, affecting one's daily activities and overall quality of life. Management often involves a combination of rest, physical therapy, exercise, and in some cases, medical intervention to address the underlying cause and alleviate symptoms. Understanding the specific cause of lower back pain is crucial for effective treatment and prevention strategies.
The anatomy of the lower back
The lower back, also known as the lumbar spine, is a five-vertebrae bone section of the spine that supports much of the weight of the upper body. The lumbar muscles, along with the abdominal muscles, work to move the trunk and lower back, and provide strength and stability to the lower back, allowing for bending forward, backward, and rotation. The lumbar spine is comprised of bone, cartilage, ligaments, nerves, and muscle, each of which plays an integral role in the form and function of the lumbar spine. The spinal cord ends between the first and second lumbar vertebrae, and below this level, the remaining nerves form the cauda equina, a bundle of nerves resembling a horse’s tail. The spaces between the vertebrae are filled with intervertebral discs, which act as shock absorbers and allow for movement. The muscles that attach to the lumbar spine include the multifidus muscles, which help to give segmental support to the spine.
Common causes of lower back pain
Lower back pain is a common condition that can be caused by a variety of factors. Some of the most common causes of lower back pain include:
- Muscle or ligament strain: Repeated heavy lifting or sudden awkward movements can strain back muscles and spinal ligaments. For people in poor physical condition, constant strain on the back can cause painful muscle spasms.
- Bulging or ruptured disks: Disks act as cushions between the bones in the spine. The soft material inside a disk can bulge or rupture and press on a nerve.
- Arthritis: Osteoarthritis can affect the lower back.
- Structural problems: Some people are born with spinal problems that can cause back pain. Abnormal curvature of the spine, such as scoliosis, can also cause back pain.
- Osteoporosis: This condition causes bones to become weak and brittle, leading to compression fractures in the spine.
- Inflammatory conditions: Conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis can cause back pain.
- Cancer: In rare cases, back pain can be a symptom of cancer that has spread to the spine.
- Other medical conditions: Kidney stones, infections, and endometriosis are among the medical conditions that can cause back pain.
It is important to consult a healthcare provider if you experience persistent or severe back pain, as they can help determine the underlying cause and recommend appropriate treatment.
Acute lower back pain treatment
Acute lower back pain can be a debilitating condition, but there are several steps you can take to manage your symptoms and promote healing. Here are some tips for dealing with acute lower back pain:
- Stop normal physical activity for the first few days. This will help relieve your symptoms and reduce any swelling in the area of the pain. It will also reduce the risk of making your injury worse, which in turn helps to speed up the recovery process.
- Apply heat or ice to the painful area. Moist heat, such as a warm bath or shower, tends to work better than dry heat. You can also try an electric heating pad. Ice can also be helpful, especially in the first few days after the onset of pain. It is important to consider how the pain started before trying heat or ice. Applying heat to an area can add to any inflammation by increasing blood flow, so could possibly increase short term pain, whilst arguably delivering recovery-provoking nutrients to the injury.
- Take over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, to help manage your pain.
- Stay active, but avoid activities that may aggravate your pain. Walking, swimming, and low-impact aerobics can be helpful for promoting healing and preventing future episodes of back pain.
- Try non-drug therapies, such as massage, acupuncture, or spinal manipulation. These therapies can help relieve pain and promote healing.
- Practice good posture to help ease pressure on your lower back. Keep your head centered over your pelvis and avoid slouching or craning your chin forward.
- Get plenty of rest and sleep to help your body heal.
It is important to note that if your back pain is severe or persists for more than a few days, you should consult a healthcare provider. They can help determine the underlying cause of your pain and recommend appropriate treatment.
Chronic lower back pain treatment
Chronic lower back pain can be a challenging condition to manage, but there are several steps you can take to help alleviate your symptoms and improve your quality of life. Here are some tips for dealing with chronic lower back pain:
- Exercise regularly: Exercise is one of the most effective treatments for chronic back pain. It can help strengthen the muscles in your back, improve flexibility, and reduce pain. However, it is important to work with a fitness professional or physical therapist to develop an exercise program that is tailored to your specific needs and limitations.
- Practice good posture: Poor posture can put extra strain on your back muscles and exacerbate chronic pain. Try to sit and stand up straight, with your shoulders back and your feet flat on the ground.
- Apply heat or cold: Applying heat or cold to the affected area can help reduce pain and inflammation. Try using a heating pad or taking a warm bath, or apply an ice pack wrapped in a towel to the affected area.
- Consider non-drug therapies: Non-drug therapies such as massage, acupuncture, and cognitive behavioural therapy can be effective for managing chronic back pain.
- Maintain a healthy weight: Being overweight can put extra strain on your back muscles and exacerbate chronic pain. Maintaining a healthy weight through diet and exercise can help reduce pain and improve overall health.
- Manage stress: Stress can exacerbate chronic pain. Try practicing relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, or yoga to help manage stress and reduce pain.
- Work with a Physiotherapist or Sports Therapist: They can help you develop a comprehensive treatment plan for managing chronic back pain. This may include medications, physical therapy, along with other treatments.
It is important to note that chronic back pain can be a complex condition, and it may take time to find the right combination of treatments that work for you. Be patient and persistent in your efforts to manage your pain, and work closely with your healthcare provider to develop a treatment plan that meets your needs.
The term "exercise is medicine" is a little cheesy... but in this case it really is true. Our spines go through a lot in today's active world so looking after them is really important in maintaining health and staying injury-free. Each step we take and every move we make has an affect on our backs, especially the lumbar region. Building a strong, resilient core is the staple to avoiding lower back pain.