You know that familiar stiffness in your lower back when you wake up in the morning, the ache when you bend over to pick something up off the floor, or the sharp pain you feel when you ride in the car for too long? Statistics say that you’ve most likely experienced lower back pain at some point in your life, and if you haven’t yet, you probably will in the future. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, approximately 80 percent of adults experience lower back pain at some point in their lives and even go on to needing physical therapy. That’s four out of every five people! Lower back pain is so common that it is the most common cause of job-related disability and one of the leading causes of missed workdays. Not only that, but more than 25 percent of adults have experienced lower back pain in the past three months. The good news is that there are steps you can take to treat your lower back pain or chronic pain in your back and to prevent it.
Where is the low back?
This might seem like a silly question at first, but our backs are made up of many different vertebrae, so it’s important to know which ones we’re talking about when we refer to the lower back. The lower back is made up of your lumbar vertebrae, which includes five vertebrae labeled from L1, which is highest on your spine, to L5, which is the lowest. These vertebrae support the majority of the body’s weight in your spine, so they get progressively larger in size. In between each of the vertebrae are soft discs, which provide cushioning and shock absorption when you move.
What are the types of lower back pain?
There are three types of lower back pain: acute, subacute, and chronic. Acute back pain is short term pain that lasts for a few days up to a few weeks. The majority of lower back pain fits into this category, and this type of pain tends to resolve itself on its own with rest and self-care. Most acute back pain occurs when you move in a way that your body isn’t used to, such as sleeping in a strange position or lifting something heavy off the floor without proper support. Subacute pain is similar to acute pain in its cause but lasts between four and twelve weeks. Chronic back pain lasts for twelve weeks or longer, often after the initial injury or cause has been resolved. Approximately 20 percent of people who experience acute back pain will experience chronic back pain.
What causes lower back pain?
Most acute back pain is caused by muscle strain or similar soft tissue damage. Treatment options such as rest, activity restriction, icing, heat, bed rest and over the counter anti-inflammatory pain medication as needed, lower back pain caused by a muscle strain or soft tissue damage will usually resolve itself. Chronic back pain can be caused by injuries, degenerative conditions, or spinal deformities, including, but not limited to:
- Herniated disc: The spinal disc protrudes out of the spinal column and irritates a nearby nerve
- Spinal stenosis: Narrowing of the spinal canal due to degeneration, which puts pressure on the nerves
- Degenerative disc disease: Degeneration of the discs between the vertebrae allows small amounts of movement in the spine, irritating the nerves
- Isthmic Spondylolisthesis: A stress fracture that causes one vertebra to slip forward onto another, causing pain
- Osteoarthritis: Degeneration of the spinal joints, causing back pain and decreased flexibility
In some cases, you may need to see a physical therapist when pain management like ibuprofen or acetaminophen isn’t helping to ease the side effects of lower back pain. Sometimes the pain can be something more such as sciatica or an injury to the spinal cord. Depending on the cause, back pain treatment will vary.
Why do pregnant women experience lower back pain?
Pregnant women commonly complain of an aching lower back, and with good reason! The weight of the fetus puts pressure on the blood vessels and nerves in the spine, often causing pain in the lower back. As women’s center of gravity shifts, pregnancy can also cause you to change your posture, which can inadvertently cause back pain. Hormonal changes that occur to prepare the body for delivery cause ligaments that support the spine to relax, which can also lead to instability and pain. Pregnancy is no picnic!
What can I do to treat lower back pain?
Whether you’re pregnant or not, there are some simple things that you can do to treat lower back pain, including:
- Exercise: The last thing you probably want to do is move, but gentle exercise is hugely beneficial for lower back pain. Walking, gentle swimming and light yoga can help reduce stiffness and ease the stress on your spine.
- Alternate ice and heat: Applying ice or cold compresses for periods of 20 minutes several times per day can reduce swelling and decrease pain. If your doctor approves it, you may alternative using a heating pad to help soothe tight or painful muscles.
- Chiropractic care: Chiropractic care, or spinal adjustments, can be an excellent choice for acute back pain that occurs as the result of a “wrong move,” like standing up too quickly. Some patients swear by it for chronic conditions, too. Make sure only a licensed chiropractor performs spinal adjustments.
- Acupuncture: Acupuncture, in which small needles are inserted into the skin at specific locations to release tension, can be effective at healing low back pain without invasive methods.
- Rest and reduce activity: If your back starts to hurt, take a few days off from your normal workout routine to give your body a chance to heal.
How can I prevent lower back pain?
The good news is that lower back pain is often preventable, no matter how common it is. To prevent lower back pain, try:
- Strengthening your core muscles: Improving your core (abdominal, glutes, and lower back muscles) strength will help keep your lower back pain-free. Try low-impact movements like planks and crunches (not sit-ups).
- Maintaining a healthy weight: Your spine is responsible for supporting your weight, and your lower back bears the brunt of that burden. Shed excess weight to take pressure off your lower back.
- Improving your posture: Many of us spend far too much time sitting, but how we’re sitting is really the problem. Try to consciously sit up straight and avoid slouching when walking and sitting.
- Lifting with your legs: Don’t bend over to pick up a heavy object off the floor. Squat down and pick the object up, letting your legs do the lifting.
- Moving more: Make sure you get up and move around during the workday. If you have the option of using a standing desk, try it! Sitting is one of the worst things we can do for our lower backs, so the more you move, the better.