If you've ever suffered a backache, you know how debilitating it can be. A strained muscle or inflamed disc can make sitting, standing, and/or moving normally extremely difficult. Back pain can happen to anyone, regardless of your age or medical history, and can develop in any part of your back. However, it usually occurs in the lower part of your back, which is crucial for supporting body weight, good posture, and comfortable gait.
There are two types of back pain:
This is the most common type and can last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. In most cases, acute back pain can be managed with at-home remedies or will resolve on its own over time.
By definition, this type of back pain must last more than 12 weeks. Around 20% of people who experience chronic back pain will regularly suffer symptoms over the course of a year. For most patients, identifying and treating the underlying cause of their back pain is the secret to alleviating it for good.
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Lower back pain is a very common¹ issue, with a quarter of Americans reporting having suffered from it in the previous three months. In most cases, acute lower back pain is caused by trauma to the ligaments or muscles that support your back.
Other common causes of lower back pain² include:
Ruptured or herniated discs
Muscle strains or tears
Ligament strains or tears
Spinal column fracture
Back pain can affect anyone, regardless of whether they're young, old, healthy, or have an underlying medical condition. Additionally, there are lifestyle factors that can increase your chances of developing lower back pain. Some of these include:
Being overweight or gaining weight quickly, including during pregnancy, can put more strain on your lower back.
Back pain becomes more common as you get older. Most people have their first experience with lower back pain after 30³, which becomes more common every year until 60-65. Getting older can also make some conditions, such as osteoporosis, more common, which can also contribute to lower back pain.
Research⁴ shows that those who smoke had an 80% higher chance of developing chronic lower back pain. Smoking not only causes increased inflammation but also limits blood flow to the structures around the back (e.g., disc, bones, muscles, etc.).
Physical fitness level
People who do not exercise regularly or live an active lifestyle are more likely to develop a backache due to being more sedentary and being out of shape.
If your job⁵ requires you to lift, push, or move heavy objects, you're more likely to injure your back. Alternatively, sitting at a desk all day can also cause back pain because of poor posture or lack of support.
Poor mental health
Not only can lower back pain occurs for a variety of reasons, but it can also present different symptoms in different people. It's not uncommon for one person's experience with lower back pain to be completely unique when compared to another's, depending on the cause, type, and location of their injury.
Here are some common symptoms of lower back pain:
Stiffness in the lower back, often accompanied by a limited range of movement
Muscle spasms during activity and at rest
Pain that continues for up to two weeks
Inability to sit or move normally due to discomfort or stiffness
Pain that radiates into the buttocks and legs, with or without normal movement
As lower back pain can be life-altering, you may think that seeking help from a medical professional is the only way to find relief or resolve your problem. However, for most people, this simply isn't true. Depending on the cause of your lower back pain, it may be possible to alleviate your discomfort and resume your normal lifestyle with simple home remedies.
If you are struggling with the pain and inconvenience of lower back pain, keep these tips in mind to help you find relief quickly:
Apply heat or cold
Alternating between heat and cold could ease your aching lower back. Wrap an ice pack in a towel before applying it to the painful area for up to 20 minutes at a time, three times a day. Likewise, using a heating pad on a low setting or moist heat in a shower or bath for 15-20 minutes at a time can help reduce inflammation and improve mobility. However, some people may find that their body responds to either heat or cold more effectively.
When your back hurts, you may want to lie down or sit as still as possible. However, doing so for long periods of time could actually prevent your back from healing and the pain from stopping⁷. To keep your back strong, staying active with low-impact exercises, such as swimming or riding a bike, can help. Additionally, improving your flexibility through daily stretching or yoga can be beneficial for reducing your lower back pain and preventing muscle spasms.
Take over-the-counter pain medication
Over-the-counter pain medications, such as ibuprofen and paracetamol won't treat the underlying cause of your lower back pain, but they can certainly take the edge off your symptoms. If getting out of bed to go for a walk or do some stretches sounds like a daunting task, pain medication could make doing so easier. Topical treatments, such as gels, creams, and sprays, can also help in dulling the sensation of muscle spasms. Just be sure to consult your doctor before using any pain medication for your back pain.
If your back pain has lasted longer than a month, physical therapy may be necessary. Using a combination of modern techniques, including muscle relaxation, exercise, dry needling, and electrical stimulation, can help ease pain and improve movement. In addition, a physical therapist can give you tips and techniques to practice at home to prevent your back pain from recurring and ways to manage it if it does.
There is little scientific proof that holistic treatments can successfully treat lower back pain at the source. However, many people have anecdotally benefitted from these approaches; examples of these alternative techniques include:
Even though most lower backaches will resolve on their own over time or can be treated in the comfort of your own home, it's important to know when it's time to see a doctor. If your back pain lasts longer than two weeks, it's time to schedule an appointment with your primary care physician.
If you experience one or more of the following symptoms, seek medical help right away:
A fever higher than 100.4F
Inability to control your bladder or bowels
Worsening pain or weakness down the legs
Severe pain during the night
Severe abdominal pain
If you visit your doctor for lower back pain, be sure to discuss your complete medical history. In most cases, a discussion of your symptoms along with a physical exam will be enough to diagnose your lower back pain to create a personalized treatment plan. However, for some patients with chronic back pain, more extensive testing may be necessary to rule out more serious conditions, such as tumors.
Possible tests that could be used to diagnose back pain include:
Computerized tomography (CT)
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
While no one plans on injuring their back when they wake up in the morning, there are lifestyle factors that help prevent a lower back injury from happening. Keep these practical tips in mind to protect your back:
Be aware of your posture when standing or sitting.
Maintain a strong core with low-impact exercises, such as swimming, biking, and walking.
Avoid lifting beyond your capacity.
Use the correct technique if you are required to lift or carry a heavy object. Make sure to squat and use your legs.
Watch your weight by eating a balanced diet, drinking enough water, and limiting your sugar consumption.
Manage your stress level with self-care or therapy.
If you do experience the occasional flare-up from a previous back injury, don't panic. Take over-the-counter pain medication, such as ibuprofen, along with ice and/or heat therapy to help reduce the inflammation and pain.
If you experience lower back pain, it's possible to find relief at home with remedies, such as heat and/or ice treatments for short intervals, pain medication, staying active, or stretching. Most importantly, if your lower back pain gets worse or persists longer than a few weeks, it's time to make an appointment with your doctor.
The best way to manage lower back pain is to prevent it from occurring in the first place by maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, using the correct technique when picking up heavy objects, and managing your stress.
Acute low back pain | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Low back pain - acute | MedLine Plus
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