Lower back pain is an epidemic in the United States, and you or someone you know has likely been affected. 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 need physical therapy – that’s four out of every five people! If you’ve experienced low back pain, then you know exactly how debilitating it can be. Lower back pain is the most common cause of job-related disability and one of the leading causes of missed days of work. Even worse, more than 25 percent of adults have experienced lower back pain in just the past three months alone. Lower back pain can make everyday activities like going to work or lying down to go to bed unbearable. There are four secret tips that can help you find pain relief for lower back pain, but before you learn about how to resolve your pain, it’s important to know what causes it in the first place and how to prevent it.
What is Lower Back Pain?
The answer to this question might seem obvious, but lower back pain actually applies only to specific vertebrae in our backs. The lower back is made up of your lumbar spine, which includes five vertebrae labeled from L1, which is highest on your spine, to L5, which is the lowest. The lumbar spine is responsible for supporting a majority of the body’s weight, so the vertebrae in your lower back get larger as you move closer to your tailbone. Each vertebrae is cushioned by soft discs that lie in between the discs and provide cushioning and shock absorption when you move.
Is There More Than One Type of Lower Back Pain?
Although this is another seemingly obvious question, this one has a bit of a tricky answer. There are actually three types of lower back pain, including acute, subacute, and chronic pain. Acute lower back pain is short term pain that comes on suddenly and lasts for a few days up to a few weeks. Most instances of lower back pain are acute back pain, and this type of pain tends to resolve on its own with rest, ice, and self-care. Acute back pain is typically caused by moving in a way that your body does not expect, such as bending over to pick something up, lifting a heavy object off the floor, or sleeping in a strange position. Lower back pain is classified as subacute pain when it lasts between four and twelve weeks. Chronic back pain, the most lengthy instance of lower back pain, lasts for twelve weeks or longer, sometimes after the initial injury or issue has been resolved. About 20 percent of people who experience acute lower back pain will see it escalate into chronic back pain.
What Causes Lower Back Pain?
Most instances of acute back pain are caused by a pulled or strained muscle or another type of soft tissue damage. Acute back pain is often resolved with conservative treatment like rest, activity restriction, icing, heat, bed rest and over the counter anti-inflammatory pain medication. Chronic back pain is caused by any number of 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
While many types of lower back pain can be relieved with over-the-counter pain reliever medications like ibuprofen, acetaminophen, advil, aleve, tylenol, or motrin, it may sometimes be necessary to seek help from a doctor or physical therapist if your pain cannot be managed with conservative treatment. This often indicates an underlying cause that may be more serious, such as an injury to the vertebrae or discs. Depending on the cause, back pain treatment will vary.
What are The Standard Treatments For Lower Back Pain?
Because lower back pain is so common and often resolves itself relatively quickly when managed appropriately, the standard treatments for lower back pain are very conservative. There is a lot of health information you can use out there from the nih or even workout fitness companies that can help you with low back pain management. Standard treatments for lower back pain include:
- Gentle exercise: It may seem counterintuitive, but one of the most effective treatments for lower back pain is creating an exercise program with gentle physical activity. Light yoga, aerobic exercise, and other gentle workouts, like those available for online streaming from Body FX, can help reduce stiffness and ease the stress on your spine by increasing blood flow and working as a natural painkiller.
- Ice and heat: While your first instinct might be to sit around all day with a heating pad, resist the urge! Applying ice packs or cold packs for 20 minutes at a time is helpful at reducing swelling and decreasing pain. If your doctor or therapist approves it, you may alternate using a heating pad to relax acute low back pains, but make sure not to overdo it. Additional heat can increase swelling.
- Chiropractic care: Health care from a chiropractor, or spinal adjustments, is an effective treatment for acute lower back pain that occurs as the result of a sudden movement or poor positioning, like standing up too quickly or sleeping in a strange position. Some people with chronic lower back pain also find relief. Make sure you only receive chiropractic care from a licensed chiropractor provider.
- Acupuncture: Acupuncture is a non-invasive treatment option in which small needles are inserted into the body at specific locations to release tension.
- Rest: While you don’t want to completely restrict all movement, taking a break from a normal, intensive workout routine is a good idea if you experience acute lower back pain.
Can Lower Back Pain Be Prevented?
Lower back pain might be extremely common, but that doesn’t mean it’s not preventable. To prevent lower back pain, consider:
- Adding in a core workout: Strengthening the muscles in your core (abdominal, glutes, and lower back muscles) will help keep your lower back pain-free by improving your posture and strengthening spinal support. If you struggle with lower back issues, make sure to avoid exercises like sit-ups, which can put undue pressure on your lower back, and focus on planks and upright core work instead. You can stream great core workout videos online through online fitness communities like Body FX.
- Shedding extra pounds: Shedding extra weight can help reduce the pressure on your lower back and prevent pain. Even five to ten pounds will reduce the load on your lower back, which supports the majority of your body’s weight.
- Improving your posture: Easier said than done, right? Many people sit all day for work, and the majority of that time is often spent slouching in an unsupportive chair. Try instituting “posture checks” every hour where you consciously try to sit up straight. Before you know it, it will become second nature.
- Lifting with your legs: Bending over at the waist to pick a heavy item up off the floor is the fastest way to throw out your lower back.. Squat down and pick the object up, letting your legs do the lifting.
- Moving more: Gentle movement is the best way to reduce tension in your lower back. During the workday, make a conscious effort to stand up and move around for a few minutes each hour.
What Are The Four Secret Tips For Lower Back Pain Relief?
Finally, we’re getting to the juicy details! If you’ve lived with lower back pain for any period of time, a lot of the conservative treatment and prevention advice you’ve read so far probably isn’t new to you. However, there are four secret tips for lower back pain relief that few people talk about in the conversation surrounding treatment.
- Stretch your hamstrings every day: Your hamstrings are the muscles that run down the back of your thighs, and tightness in these muscles can be an often-overlooked cause of lower back pain. Tightness in the hamstrings causes pulling on the lower back and sacroiliac joints, causing additional pain and stiffness. Stretching your hamstrings with lower back pain is not as simple as just bending over at the waist, though, as this can result in acute lower back pain if done improperly. Try lying on your back on the floor with your buttocks as close to the wall as you can get and your legs stretched up against the wall. Try to straighten your knees as much as possible, feeling the stretch down the backs of the legs. This minimizes strain on the low back. Try stretching twice a day for 30 to 60 seconds at a time.
- Train your brain: While pain may have a very real physical cause, the way our brains receive and process pain plays an important role in the way we feel it. Mindfulness, meditation, and cognitive behavioral therapy techniques have all been shown to help our brains relax, process pain differently, and may even help reduce the sensation of pain.
- Find your happy place: Lower back pain is a major bummer that can seriously impact your daily activities, but studies show that pain is improved when we’re in a good mood. Something as simple as brewing a hot cup of coffee, catching up with a friend on the phone, or sending a greeting card can help to lift our spirits when we’re struggling with lower back pain and stimulate endorphins, which help reduce pain.
- Get enough sleep: What does sleep have to do with lower back pain? Everything! Our bodies heal when we sleep, so if you’re not getting enough restorative rest, your recovery time will be much longer. This is especially important for acute lower back pain caused by soft tissue strains and injuries.