If you know a close relative that has had to deal with lower back pain, especially as they got older, you may be concerned about this highly common problem in yourself. The good news is that many typical triggers of lower back pain result from lifestyle choices we can change, according to Kaliq Chang, MD, of Atlantic Spine Center.
There is no question that lower back pain is prevalent as more than 8 in 10 American adults will experience the condition at some point in their lives, according to the National Institutes of Health. But Dr. Chang, an interventional pain management specialist, is quick to point out that most cases of lower back pain are temporary, and only a few factors leading to it are not controllable.
“Age and family history can’t be modified, of course” he explains. “And so-called ‘mechanical injury’ to muscles or tendons, or to tissues surrounding the spine’s bony vertebrae, can result from sports mishaps, auto accidents, falls or other unpredictable situations. But our lifestyle plays a major role in either triggering lower back pain or preserving our lower spine health.”
Common Causes of Lower Back Pain
What are some of the most common triggers of lower back pain we can control? According to Dr. Chang, they include:
Exercise: Whether you exercise too little or too much, either can lead to lower back pain. Being a “couch potato” doesn’t properly strengthen back muscles, but overuse injuries can also take a toll. “Exercise is generally great for your back but pay attention to signals that you may be overdoing it,” he says.
Sitting: A lot of us sit at a desk all day but doing so places more pressure on spinal discs and vertebrae than standing or walking. “Ideally, you’ll alternate periods of sitting with periods of getting up, stretching, and walking around during your workday,” Dr. Chang advises.
Smoking: This one’s simple – don’t do it or stop if you do. Nicotine is known to reduce healthy blood flow around the body, including circulation to the vertebrae and spinal discs.
Core Strength: This goes back to exercise but speaks also to the types of movements that strengthen core muscles in the hips, back, abdomen and pelvis. All of these muscles help support the spine and prevent injuries, Dr. Chang says. “Lunges, planks, squats, yoga and pilates can boost core strength immensely,” he adds.
Weight: Keeping extra pounds away is important for several health reasons, but also because the lower back area bears a disproportionate share of the strain. “Even 10 extra pounds of weight, especially when concentrated in the belly area, can pull your spine out of alignment and lead to lower back pain,” Dr. Chang notes.
Stress Levels: Sure, getting stressed out sure can seem uncontrollable at times. But research has long linked psychological stress with physical effects such as back pain by creating tremendous muscle tension in the lower spine area, Dr. Chang says.
Tips on Treatment of Lower Back Pain
As noted earlier, most cases of lower back pain resolve within days to weeks, Dr. Chang says, and don’t require anything more than simple at-home measures to find relief. These treatments include over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen or naproxen, rest, applying ice or heat, and gentle stretching.
If your lower back pain does not get better within 6 to 12 weeks, see a doctor for a more detailed diagnostic process to pinpoint the cause. Getting a prompt medical evaluation becomes even more important if your back pain is combined with tingling or numbness in the legs or feet, or, if your pain awakens you at night, Dr. Chang says.
“Advanced technology to diagnose the causes of lower back pain, such as MRI or CT scans, offer a huge advantage toward addressing the pain and getting patients back to doing all their favorite activities,” he says. “Just don’t feel helpless or powerless to prevent or treat lower back pain.”