Almost everyone will experience lower back pain in their lifetime — about 80% of adults. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), low back pain is the most common cause of job-related disability and a leading contributor to missed workdays.
Pain in the lower back can come on suddenly as a result of heavy lifting or an accident, or it can develop slowly over time due to aging’s role in changing the spine. Leading a sedentary lifestyle can also cause low back pain as the back muscles become weak and more vulnerable to injury.
Causes for lower back pain
Though the majority of low back pain is due to injury (i.e. a strain or disc injury), this isn’t always the case. Other causes of lower back pain include:
- Spinal stenosis: When the spinal column narrows, putting pressure on the spinal cord and nerves.
- Abnormal spine curvatures
- Fibromyalgia: Long-term pain and tenderness in the joints, muscles, and tendons.
- Spondylitis: Inflammation of the joints between the spinal bones.
- Spondylosis: A degenerative disorder that sometimes leads to loss of normal spinal structure and function.
- Cancer of the spinal cord
- A ruptured or herniated disc
- Sciatica: When a herniated disc presses on the sciatic nerve.
- Kidney infections
- Infections of the spine
- Kidney and bladder problems
- Ovarian cysts
- Uterine fibroids
It’s also important to note that there are two types of back pain: pain that comes on suddenly and lasts no more than six weeks (aka acute back pain) and pain that lasts more than three months (aka chronic back pain).
What to do about lower back pain
According to Mayo Clinic, the majority of low back pain gradually improves with home treatment and self-care, usually within a few weeks. Home treatment can include alternating between ice and heat to relax muscles, over-the-counter pain medication, cessation of intense physical activity, and/or a warm bath or a massage.
If you practice home treatment diligently and your pain doesn’t improve after 72 hours, you should call your doctor.
There’s also the chance that your back pain is indicative of a serious medical problem.
In rare cases, back pain can signal a serious medical problem. Seek immediate care if your back pain leads to new bowel or bladder problems, is accompanied by fever, or follows a fall/blow to your back, seek immediate care.
Additionally, you should contact a doctor if your back pain becomes severe, causes weakness/numbness in one or both legs, causes tingling/pain down one or both legs, or is accompanied by inexplicable weight loss.
If you’re over 50 years old and you start experiencing back pain for the first time with no clear cause, seek medical help. The same goes for those with a history of cancer, osteoporosis, steroid use, or excessive drug or alcohol use.
Some back pain can be prevented through lifestyle modifications such as regular low-impact aerobic activities, abdominal and back muscle exercises, quitting smoking, and maintaining good posture.
Remember, though, that most products that promise prevention and/or relief aren’t scientifically proven to help (i.e. special mattresses or insoles). Always consult with your doctor before beginning a new program/protocol for your back pain.