young man with his arms on his back due to lower back pain

Lower Back Pain 101: Symptoms, Causes, Tests & Treatments

Experiencing lower back pain? Find out the possible causes, treatment options available, and stretches and exercises to help with lower back pain relief.

by Lorraine Bunag, R.N.

Lower back pain is a common complaint among people. For many, it is a temporary issue resulting from sleeping in the “wrong” position, or overexerting the back muscles during physical activity. For others, lower back pain happens due to job-related incidences or an underlying health condition.

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Read on to learn how to better manage and treat back pain.

Lower Back Pain Symptoms

Clearly, the primary symptom is lower back pain; however, people perceive pain differently. In this section, let’s talk about pain descriptions and other symptoms associated with low back pain.

What Kind of Pain Do People Feel?

Describing the kind of pain gives doctors a better idea of what triggers the situation. For this reason, be sure to explain your pain in detail. After all, low back pain can feel like any of the following:

  • Dull ache or slight pain – this does not hinder you from doing your daily activities, but it is present and feels unpleasant.
  • Sharp pain – it means that the pain is sudden and intense. Some people also describe it as shooting or spiking pain.
  • Pulsating – some refer to it as throbbing pain, or the kind of pain that’s pounding or beating.
  • Tenderness – if you experience tenderness, then it means that you feel pain when slight pressure is applied on your lower back.
  • Tingling – for some people, low back pain means they have a tingling sensation, which is often accompanied by numbness. Sometimes, people also feel a burning sensation.
  • Muscle spasms – if the muscles in your back seem to contract really tight, then you may be experiencing muscle spasms.
  • Pressure – when you feel back pain, observe if there is some kind of pressure. You can also describe the pain as gripping or heavy.

On top of these descriptions, remember that you can also discuss how often you feel pain and if any particular action tends to trigger or worsen the pain. For example, you may feel back pain only if you take certain positions, or it may be constantly there. Another important detail is if the pain radiates from one area to another.

What Other Symptoms Come With Low Back Pain?

In some instances, low back pain comes with other noticeable symptoms. Be sure to describe them to your doctor as well.

Some of the symptoms that happen alongside back pain are:

  • Urinary incontinence
  • Difficulty urinating
  • Loss of control over bowel movement
  • Numbness in other areas such as the genitals, anus, and buttocks
  • Swelling or inflammation of the back
  • Weight loss and fever

When Should You Be Concerned About Lower Back Pain?

Sometimes, we expect back pain due to sports and physical exertion. However, these muscle aches are usually manageable and tend to go away on its own after a few days of rest.

So, when should low back pain be a cause of concern? According to experts, be sure to contact a physician if your back pain comes with other symptoms such as those we enumerated above.

Additionally, set an appointment with your physician if:

  • The pain persists for more than a few weeks
  • You feel severe pain that does not get better with rest
  • The pain radiates or “extends” to the legs, especially below the knees
  • You experience unexplained weight loss along with the pain
  • You feel a numbing or tingling sensation in both your legs

You may need immediate medical attention if your back pain is accompanied by a new onset of bowel and bladder issues, fever, or happened after a fall or accident that resulted in a blow to your back.

Acute Lower Back Pain Causes

Acute back pain often happens suddenly and only lasts for a few days to a few weeks.

If you experience acute low back pain, chances are, it’s because you strained a muscle or sprained a ligament. While these are different conditions, the symptoms and treatment are often the same.

Straining the back means there’s an injury to the tissues connecting bones to muscles. On the other hand, a sprain indicates that there’s damage to the tissues connecting muscles to muscles.

The following activities may lead to a sprain or strain:

  • Lifting heavy items or twisting the back while lifting
  •  Poor posture
  • Injuries due to accidents (vehicular accidents, sports injuries, etc.)

Sprain or strain does not usually cause lasting harm, but the pain may be severe. As a rule of thumb, get your back checked to receive appropriate medications, recover more quickly and fully, and prevent the injury from getting worse.

Chronic Low Back Pain Causes

If low back pain persists for more than just a couple of weeks, we can say that a person has chronic low back pain. Even simple activities, when done repeatedly, can lead to long-term pain.

The following medical conditions may also cause chronic back pain:

  • Curvature of the spine, such as scoliosis and kyphosis.
  • Herniated or ruptured disks. Disks serve as cushions between the bones of your spine (vertebrae). Sometimes, the soft tissues in the disks bulge, rupture, or slip, causing pressure to a nerve.
  • Spinal stenosis, a condition where the space between the spinal cord and nerves become narrowed.
  • Fibromyalgia, a condition where a person experiences pain linked to physical trauma, sleep disturbance, or viral infection.
  • Arthritis, including osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis
  • Osteoporosis, a condition where a person experiences weakening of the bones.

If you have chronic back pain, contact your doctor. They will be able to ascertain the root cause of your condition and offer you the best medical treatment.

If going to a clinic or hospital is inconvenient, you can set up an online consultation with our doctors or have a doctor visit you at your home.

Diagnostic Tests

Tests for lower back pain usually involve imaging tests such as x-rays, MRI, or CT scan. If your doctor suspects an infection or another condition, they may also order blood tests. To check for compression or tumours, they may also recommend a bone scan. 

Lower Back Pain Treatment

The treatment for back pain, whether acute or chronic, depends on what triggered the condition. Case in point, pain resulting from overexertion may just need pain relievers, cold compress, and adequate rest to prevent further aggravating the back injury. Should lower back pain happen due to an underlying medical condition, the doctor will most definitely treat that condition too.

Some of the common treatment strategies for lower back pain are:

Pharmacological Treatment

Whatever the cause of your lower back pain is, the doctor will most likely give you pain medications. And while many painkillers are sold over the counter, the safest way to take them is to get a prescription.

Besides pain meds, the physician may also recommend one or a combination of the following drugs:

  • Muscle relaxants
  • Anti-anxiety drugs
  • Narcotics or drugs that contain opioids
  • Medications to treat an underlying health condition that contributes to your lower back pain

Physiotherapy

Another commonly recommended strategy is physiotherapy. In this method, a physiotherapist will guide you on exercises that help strengthen back muscles. These exercises also improve your flexibility, and of course, reduce pain.

If you are looking for certified physical therapists who can attend to your back pain concerns in the comfort of your home, consider booking an appointment with us

Injections

In case your back pain extends to your legs, the doctor may opt for injections. They may inject cortisone (a strong painkiller) down your legs in addition to a numbing medication at the epidural space or the space around your spinal cord. However, this method usually only gives temporary pain relief for about a month or two.

Surgery

Finally, for certain conditions, such as spinal stenosis and herniated disks, the doctor may recommend surgery. However, this is often the last resort that’s done only after other methods of treatment have failed.

Lower Back Pain Relief: Home Remedies

Sometimes, home remedies can help to reduce and prevent lower back pain. These include lifestyle modification, dietary changes, and exercise and stretches for lower back pain.

Lifestyle Modifications

The first and perhaps most practical step to reduce back pain is to make some lifestyle changes. Take note of the activities that trigger back pain, and then consider modifying them. You don’t have to completely remove the activity; simply think of ways to make things easier for your back.

For instance, instead of carrying multiple bags of groceries at one go, take several trips instead. If you are cleaning your house, don’t forget to take frequent breaks.

Dietary Changes

You may think that diet has nothing to do with back pain, but experts disagree. According to them, some foods are highly inflammatory. Examples include food that’s high in trans-fat and added sugars. Processed foods are also known culprits.

Discuss with your doctor about your diet. You can come up with meal plans that will prevent the advancement of your condition and reduce pain.

Perform Home Remedies

You can also try the following home remedies:

  • Rest: Persisting with physical activity may make the pain worse.
  • Cold or Hot Compress: Applying a cold or hot compress may help to relieve pain. Consider applying the compress for about 15 minutes, every 1 to 2 hours. However, do take note that depending on the cause of your pain, a cold or hot compress may be advised.
  • Position Changes: Be mindful of your sleeping position. Make sure that your mattress is firm enough to provide adequate support. If you are sleeping on your back, consider placing a small pillow under your knees. If you are sleeping on your side, place a small pillow between your knees.  
  • Exercise: It may seem counterintuitive but some exercises can actually relieve pain. Try out some of the exercises that can help to relieve back pain below.

Do take note that back pain can become chronic and sometimes, self-diagnosis and home remedies may do more harm than good. To be safe, always consult a doctor for proper medical advice to ensure your back pain is not an indication of a more serious condition.

Stretches and Exercises for Lower Back Pain

Looking for stretches and exercises that can help to relieve or prevent lower back pain? Here are some simple, no-equipment exercises that may help:

Hamstring Stretch

Start off by lying flat on your back, then raise one leg toward your chest at 90 degree angle. Slowly straighten your knee until you feel the stretch on your back. Hold the position for about a minute and then repeat with the other leg.

Elbow Prop

Another easy-to-do exercise for lower back pain is the elbow prop. Our backs are meant to bend towards both the front and back. However, with our modern lifestyle, we spend most of our time sitting and bending forward to pick up things, rarely bending our backs the other way. The elbow prop does just that and can help to improve our flexibility as well.

In this exercise, simply lie down on your stomach and prop yourself up with your elbows. Remember to keep your pelvis, hips, and legs relaxed. If it’s slightly uncomfortable for you, place a small pillow below your tummy. Hold the position for about half a minute and repeat 3 to 5 times.

Single Knee to Chest

Lie on your back on a firm mattress or the floor. Pull one knee toward your chest until you feel the stretch in your lower back and hip. Hold the position for about 15 seconds and then do the same with the other knee. Repeat this exercise 5 to 10 times for each knee.

Cat Cow Pose

The cat-cow pose is a popular yoga stretch. In this exercise, you need to go on all-fours. Slowly arch your back up into a “hump.” Hold the position briefly and then slowly bring your back down into a sagging position. Repeat 10 to 15 times.

Lower Trunk Rotation

Finally, we have the lower trunk rotation. Simply lie on your back on a firm mattress or the floor. Bend both your knees with your feet flat on the floor. Keeping your knees together, feet on the floor and back flat, slowly move your knees from side to side in a pain-free range. Repeat 10 to 15 times. 

Important: When you are doing these lower back exercises, stop if you feel pain. Conditions can worsen if the stretch or exercise is not done right or is inappropriate for your injury. While these are popular exercises recommended by experts, the best exercises to relieve back pain may vary for each individual. It would be best to consult a physiotherapist or doctor, who will then create a personalised care plan that’s most suitable for you.

Lower Back Pain Prevention

To prevent lower back pain, remember the following tips:

  • Posture, posture, posture! The goal is to have a neutral spine; that means no slouching or overarching your back.
  • Exercise. Regular physical activity increases your flexibility and strength, making your back less vulnerable to pain and injuries.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Excessive weight puts pressure on your lower back, so make it a point to maintain a healthy weight.
  • Don’t smoke or quit smoking. Smoking increases your risk of experiencing lower back pain.
  • Lift smart. When carrying heavy items, keep your back straight and let your legs do most of the work. Consider using devices that help you lift heavy items.

Key Takeaways

Lower back pain is a common complaint among people regardless of age. In most cases, it happens because of straining or spraining our back. For these instances, home remedies may be enough. However, severe pain or one that persists for more than a few weeks should be checked by a doctor as soon as possible. If it’s inconvenient for you to visit a clinic or a hospital due to the pain, mobility, or other reasons, you can have a doctor come to your doorstep instead.

References
  1. 7 ways to treat chronic back pain without surgery. (n.d.). Johns Hopkins Medicine, based in Baltimore, Maryland. Retrieved January 17, 2021, from https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/back-pain/7-ways-to-treat-chronic-back-pain-without-surgery
  2. Back pain – Diagnosis and treatment – Mayo Clinic. (2018, August 4). Mayo Clinic – Mayo Clinic. Retrieved January 16, 2021, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/back-pain/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20369911
  3. Low back pain – acute. (n.d.). MedlinePlus – Health Information from the National Library of Medicine. Retrieved January 17, 2021, from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/007425.htm
  4. Low back pain – chronic. (n.d.). MedlinePlus – Health Information from the National Library of Medicine. Retrieved January 17, 2021, from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/007422.htm
  5. Low Back Pain. (n.d.). University Health Services. Retrieved January 18, 2021, from https://uhs.berkeley.edu/sites/default/files/lowbackpain.pdf
  6. Stretch and strengthen your way out of lower back pain. (n.d.). The Iowa Clinic. Retrieved January 18, 2021, from https://www.iowaclinic.com/physical-therapy/stretch-and-strengthen-your-way-out-of-lower-back-pain/

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About the Writer
Lorraine Bunag, R.N.
Lorraine is a registered nurse who spends most of her time writing informative articles on health and wellness. At the end of the day, she relaxes by reading a book or watching documentaries about unsolved mysteries.
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