Injury to the bones and joints: Fractures (breakage of bone) of the lumbar spine and sacrum bone most commonly affect elderly people with osteoporosis, especially those who have taken long-term cortisone medication. For these individuals, occasionally even minimal stresses on the spine (such as bending to tie shoes) can lead to bone fracture. In this setting, the vertebra can collapse (vertebral compression fracture). The fracture causes an immediate onset of severe localized pain that can radiate around the waist in a band-like fashion and is made intensely worse with body motions. This pain generally does not radiate down the lower extremities. Vertebral fractures in younger patients occur only after severe trauma, such as from motor-vehicle accidents or a convulsive seizure.
Since you shouldn't try to diagnose your own back pain, make your first call to a professional who can assess your problem, such as a primary care physician or a chiropractor. "Both can serve as the entry point for back pain," says Dr. Matthew Kowalski, a chiropractor with the Osher Clinical Center for Integrative Medicine at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital. "And 35% to 42% of people with their first episode of back pain will consult a chiropractor."
In addition to strengthening the core muscles, it's also important to address any mobility problems, says Jacque Crockford, M.S., C.S.C.S., exercise physiology content manager at American Council on Exercise, which can sometimes be what's causing pain. If specific movements like twisting or bending or extending your spine feel uncomfortable, there may be mobility (flexibility) issues at play. Doing some gentle stretching (like these yoga poses) might help. (If it gets worse with those stretches, stop and see a doctor.)
Lose excess weight. As we gain weight, stress and pressure on the lower spine and back muscles increases. The heavy weight at the front of the body can cause an increased arch in the spine and may lead to injury and compression of the discs and nerves. Losing weight reduces the tendency to arch the back and relieves pressure on the lower spine and nerves.
Try acupuncture. Research suggests that acupuncture can help reduce chronic low back pain. One recent review showed that actual acupuncture was more effective than simulated acupuncture or no treatment in reducing pain. It's not entirely known how acupuncture regulates pain; however, one theory suggests acupuncture helps trigger the release of pain reducing chemicals in the body (like endorphins and natural opioids). Back pain is one of the most common reasons patients first try acupuncture and many find sustained relief.
2009 — New section: Today I found a way to say some simple things about the power of self-treatment that have been “on the tip of my tongue” for years now. It all evolved from writing about an important bit of research, showing that manual therapists cannot (reliably) diagnose trigger points. [Section: Limitations of trigger point therapy, and how to take advantage of them.]
The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality has identified 11 red flags that doctors look for when evaluating a person with back pain. The focus of these red flags is to detect fractures (broken bones), infections, or tumors of the spine. Presence of any of the following red flags associated with low back pain should prompt a visit to your doctor as soon as possible for complete evaluation.
Free second tutorial! When you buy this tutorial, you will also get Save Yourself from Trigger Points and Myofascial Pain Syndrome! — a $1995 value. The low back pain tutorial makes the case that trigger points are a major factor in low back pain. However, trigger point therapy is not an easy skill to master — and it’s an enormous subject. PainScience.com publishes a separate tutorial about trigger point therapy. It’s offered as a free, essential companion to the low back pain tutorial. As a pair, they give you everything you need to know about helping most cases of low back pain.
Jackson, M., & Tummon Simmons, L. (2018, April 1). Challenging case in clinical practice: Improvement in chronic osteoarthritis pain with use of arnica oil massage, therapeutic ultrasound, and acupuncture — A case report [Abstract]. Alternative and Complementary Therapies, 24(2), 60–62. Retrieved from https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/act.2018.29152.mja?journalCode=act
Acute low back pain can be defined as six to 12 weeks of pain between the costal angles and gluteal folds that may radiate down one or both legs (sciatica). Acute low back pain is often nonspecific and therefore cannot be attributed to a definite cause. However, possible causes of acute low back pain (e.g., infection, tumor, osteoporosis, fracture, inflammatory arthritis) need to be considered based on the patient's history and physical examination. Table 1 presents the differential diagnosis of acute low back pain.5,6
Few people need surgery for back pain. If you have unrelenting pain associated with radiating leg pain or progressive muscle weakness caused by nerve compression, you might benefit from surgery. Otherwise, surgery usually is reserved for pain related to structural problems, such as narrowing of the spine (spinal stenosis) or a herniated disk, that hasn't responded to other therapy.
It may seem like the fix is lying in bed and bingeing on Netflix, but the opposite is true. For back pain in which there’s no real known cause (the majority of cases), movement is often the antidote for the ache. Research shows it’s best to do a mix of activity. Aerobic exercise boosts blood flow to heal soft tissue and increase mobility, strength exercises support the spine, and flexibility work improves movement and function. Try these exercises that ease back pain.
Do you want to prevent back pain? Try a few basic exercises to stretch and strengthen your back and supporting muscles. Repeat each exercise a few times, then increase the number of repetitions as the exercise gets easier. If you've ever hurt your back or have other health conditions, such as osteoporosis, consult your doctor before doing these exercises.
It may be tempting to quit exercising when you're suffering from back pain, but it's essential to keep yourself moving. Pilates is one great option. In a 2014 European Journal of Physical Rehabilitation Medicine study, researchers found an improvement in pain, disability, and psychological health in chronic low-back pain patients who took five hourlong Pilates classes a week for six months. Meanwhile, people who remained inactive experienced further worsening of their pain. Similarly, a Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise study revealed that taking either Pilates or a general exercise class twice a week for six weeks both improved pain and quality of life.
Most people — and most health care professionals — believe that back pain is usually caused mainly by structural problems, either injury or degeneration of the spine. This idea is not supported by the scientific evidence.25 Indeed, just the opposite is more the case: “The evidence that tissue pathology does not explain chronic pain is overwhelming (e.g., in back pain, neck pain, and knee osteoarthritis).”26
As with any sort of pain, it's crucial to figure out the source so you can properly treat it. Sharp or stabbing pain that extends beyond your low back or is accompanied by symptoms like abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting, could be signs of various other conditions and definitely warrant a trip to the doctor. If you have a history of lower back injuries or disc problems, always see your doctor before trying any new exercise.
Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) or naproxen sodium (Aleve), might relieve acute back pain. Take these medications only as directed by your doctor. Overuse can cause serious side effects. If OTC pain relievers don't relieve your pain, your doctor might suggest prescription NSAIDs.
Staying in bed for any prolonged period can make you stiff and increase pain. When you don’t move and bend, you lose muscle strength and flexibility. With bed rest, you lose about 1 percent of your muscle strength each day. And you can lose 20 to 30 percent in a week. It becomes more difficult to return to any activity. As you become weaker and stiffer your recovery takes longer.
A large Cochrane review of 65 trials (11 237 patients) of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and COX-2 inhibitors in the treatment of acute and chronic low back pain showed that NSAIDs had statistically better effects compared with placebo.51 The benefits included global improvement and less additional analgesia requirement. NSAIDs were associated with higher rate of side effects. There was no strong evidence that any one NSAID or COX-2-selective NSAID is clinically superior to the others. NSAIDs were not superior to acetaminophen, but NSAIDs had more side effects. NSAIDs were not more effective that physiotherapy or spinal manipulation for acute low back pain. COX-2-selective NSAIDs had fewer side effects than nonselective NSAIDs.51
Sitting at a desk for eight (or more) hours a day can really do a number on your back. Make sure to sit with your back against your chair (get a lumbar pillow if you chair doesn’t allow this) and both feet flat on the floor. Another option: Try using a stability ball as your desk chair like many Health staffers do—good posture is a must just to stay on the thing. Start off slow (20 minutes at a time), and if it feels good, stick with it.
To improve your workstation, position your computer monitor at eye level, at least 20 inches away from your face. Invest in a comfortable chair with armrests and good lower back support. Keep your head and neck in line with your torso, your shoulders relaxed. While you work, keep elbows close to your body, and your forearms and wrists parallel to the floor.
Few people need surgery for back pain. If you have unrelenting pain associated with radiating leg pain or progressive muscle weakness caused by nerve compression, you might benefit from surgery. Otherwise, surgery usually is reserved for pain related to structural problems, such as narrowing of the spine (spinal stenosis) or a herniated disk, that hasn't responded to other therapy.
Laboratory tests such as complete blood count with differential, erythrocyte sedimentation rate, and C-reactive protein level may be beneficial if infection or bone marrow neoplasm is suspected. These tests may be most sensitive in cases of spinal infection because lack of fever and a normal complete blood count are common in patients with spinal infection.15 Because laboratory testing lacks specificity, MRI with and without contrast media and, in many cases, biopsy are essential for accurate diagnosis.15
Practice yoga. Holding downward dog for five to ten seconds can help stretch your back muscles. This motion reduces pressure that can build up in the lower spine and cause pain. Remember to also tilt the pelvis under to avoid any further lower back strain. Pigeon pose is another great posture for backaches. Hip muscles can quickly become tight and shift strain to the back. Stretching out hip flexors and extensors can alleviate back pressure and pain.
Sometimes, however, the conditions that cause acute back pain can lead to more chronic and serious problems. Clues to a different and more serious cause include: persistent pain, pain and numbness that radiate down both the legs, bothersome pain at night plus fever, weight loss and swelling of the joints. If you experience any of these, it's important you consult a doctor who can examine you carefully, X-ray your back and perform some lab tests. Possible causes of pain in these cases could include ankylosing spondylitis or an infection or tumor of the spine.
People who used an ointment that contains this plant-based extract for 5 days reduced the intensity of lower back pain by 95%, according to a 2009 study conducted by Merck (which manufactures the ointment). In comparison, a placebo group had a 38% reduction in pain during that same time, according to the study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. Look for comfrey root ointment in health food stores or online. Just don't use it for more than 10 days at a time—it can be toxic.
Low back pain can be caused by tumors, either benign or malignant, that originate in the bone of the spine or pelvis and spinal cord (primary tumors) and those which originate elsewhere and spread to these areas (metastatic tumors). Symptoms range from localized pain to radiating severe pain and loss of nerve and muscle function (even incontinence of urine and stool) depending on whether or not the tumors affect the nervous tissue. Tumors of these areas are detected using imaging tests, such as plain X-rays, nuclear bone scanning, and CAT and MRI scanning.
A meta-analysis found traction no more effective than placebo, sham, or no treatment for any outcome for low back pain with or without sciatica.12 The results consistently indicated that continuous or intermittent traction as a single treatment for low back pain is not effective.12 Side effects included worsening of signs and symptoms and increased subsequent surgery; however, the reports are inconsistent.10
Infection of the discs (septic discitis) and bone (osteomyelitis) is extremely rare. These conditions lead to localized pain associated with fever. The bacteria found when these tissues are tested with laboratory cultures include Staphylococcus aureus and Mycobacterium tuberculosis (TB bacteria). TB infection in the spine is called Pott's disease. These are each very serious conditions requiring long courses of antibiotics. The sacroiliac joints rarely become infected with bacteria. Brucellosis is a bacterial infection that can involve the sacroiliac joints and is usually transmitted in raw goat's milk.
Laboratory tests such as complete blood count with differential, erythrocyte sedimentation rate, and C-reactive protein level may be beneficial if infection or bone marrow neoplasm is suspected. These tests may be most sensitive in cases of spinal infection because lack of fever and a normal complete blood count are common in patients with spinal infection.15 Because laboratory testing lacks specificity, MRI with and without contrast media and, in many cases, biopsy are essential for accurate diagnosis.15
Data Sources: We searched PubMed for the key term acute low back pain; this term was also searched with the following key terms: medications, nonsteroidals, muscle relaxants, opioids, red flags, differential diagnosis, exercise, McKenzie, spine stabilization, traction, acupuncture, heat, ice, advice, cost, manipulation, chiropractic care, brace, bed rest, massage. In addition, we searched the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Clinical Evidence, Essential Evidence Plus, and the National Guideline Clearinghouse. Search dates: April 2011 and May 2, 2011.
A very important muscle to strengthen is the transverse abdominis, which provides a great deal of support for the lower back. In many people this muscle is extremely weak and this can lead to lower back pain. A very gentle and safe way to strengthen this muscle is shown below. To carry out this exercise lie on your back, place a small cushion under your head, and bend your knees. Your feet should be hip distance apart and placed on the floor. Keep your upper body relaxed and your chin gently tucked in. Take a deep breath in, and as you breathe out focus on drawing your belly button in towards your spine. Hold this gentle contraction for 5 to 10 seconds. As you breathe out relax your tummy muscles. This is a slow, gentle tightening so aim to use less than 25% of your maximum strength. Repeat five times.
Can inversion therapy help with back pain? Inversion therapy, where a person is held upside down for several minutes, is an alternative therapy for back pain. They may use gravity boots or an inversion table or chair to reduce the pressure on their spine. Evidence for the effectiveness of this technique is mixed. Learn more about the benefits and risks here. Read now
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A diagnosis of sciatica is usually made during a history and physical examination. Your doctor will ask you about your pain. During the physical exam, you may be asked to lift your leg while lying on your back — shooting pain down the back of your leg while in this position is a common sign of sciatica. Your doctor will also check the strength and reflexes in your leg.
Injury to the bones and joints: Fractures (breakage of bone) of the lumbar spine and sacrum bone most commonly affect elderly people with osteoporosis, especially those who have taken long-term cortisone medication. For these individuals, occasionally even minimal stresses on the spine (such as bending to tie shoes) can lead to bone fracture. In this setting, the vertebra can collapse (vertebral compression fracture). The fracture causes an immediate onset of severe localized pain that can radiate around the waist in a band-like fashion and is made intensely worse with body motions. This pain generally does not radiate down the lower extremities. Vertebral fractures in younger patients occur only after severe trauma, such as from motor-vehicle accidents or a convulsive seizure.
The information provided does not constitute a diagnosis of your condition. You should consult a medical practitioner or other appropriate health care professional for a physical exmanication, diagnosis and formal advice. Health24 and the expert accept no responsibility or liability for any damage or personal harm you may suffer resulting from making use of this content.
Gentle stretches, walking, and periodically standing up at your desk can help stabilize your spine and prevent muscle imbalances. And despite how hard it is to imagine doing Downward-Facing Dog with a bad back, yoga can work in your favor, too. A 2013 review of studies found strong evidence it can help beat lower back pain. Any type works; one to consider is the restorative viniyoga style.
A neurologist, a doctor specializing in treatment of the nervous system. "Back pain is commonly associated with lower-extremity symptoms, such as numbness and tingling. These symptoms can also be caused by neurological conditions that are not spine-related, such as multiple sclerosis. Neurologists are great at sorting this out and offering solutions," says Dr. Kowalski.
It may seem strange to see a psychologist for back pain. But studies show that cognitive behavioral therapy is very effective in the short and long term at helping chronic back pain. For example, CBT may target how people with back pain think about physical activity -- and why they may be avoiding it -- to help change the way they respond to being active. People who do CBT have reported significant decreases in pain and disability.

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