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.”
There are several lower back pain reasons including poor posture, muscle strain, and injuries. The pain can range from mild to severe and can significantly affect daily activities. If you are experiencing lower back pain, here are some tips on how to treat it.
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.
A herniated disk is a condition where the rubbery cushions between the vertebrae in the spine slip out of place or rupture, causing pressure on the nerves that run through the spine. This can lead to pain, numbness, tingling, and weakness in the affected area. Treatment options for a herniated disk include rest, physical therapy, medications, and in severe cases, surgery.
Facet Joint Damage
Facet joint damage is a condition where the small joints between the vertebrae in the spine become inflamed or damaged, causing pain and stiffness in the affected area. This can be caused by trauma, arthritis, or wear and tear over time. Treatment options for facet joint damage include rest, physical therapy, medications, and in severe cases, surgery.
A compression fracture is a type of bone fracture that occurs when a vertebra in the spine collapses or is compressed. This can be caused by trauma, osteoporosis, or other medical conditions. Compression fractures can cause severe pain, limited mobility, and in some cases, nerve damage. Treatment options for a compression fracture include rest, physical therapy, medications, and in severe cases, surgery.
Spinal stenosis starts with the spinal canal narrowing, putting pressure on the spinal cord and nerves. Among the causes of lower back pain, are age-related changes in the spine, arthritis, or other medical conditions. Symptoms of spinal stenosis include pain, numbness, tingling, and weakness in the affected area. Treatment options for spinal stenosis include rest, physical therapy, medications, and in severe cases, surgery.
Spondylolisthesis is a condition in which one vertebra in the spine slips forward over the one below it, causing pressure on the spinal cord and nerves. This can be caused by trauma, genetics, or wear and tear over time. Symptoms of spondylolisthesis include pain, numbness, tingling, and weakness in the affected area. Treatment options for spondylolisthesis include rest, physical therapy, medications, and in severe cases, surgery.
Scoliosis is diagnosed when the spine curves sideways, usually in an S or C shape. This can be caused by genetics, poor posture, or other medical conditions. Symptoms of scoliosis include back pain, uneven shoulders, and a tilted or twisted pelvis. Treatment options for scoliosis depend on the severity of the curve and can include physical therapy, bracing, or in severe cases, surgery.
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.
- Rest: When experiencing lower back pain, it is important to rest and avoid any activities that may worsen the pain. However, too much bed rest can also be detrimental to your recovery, so it is important to find a balance.
- Heat and Ice Therapy: Applying heat or ice to the affected area can help reduce pain and inflammation. Heat therapy can help relax tense muscles, while ice therapy can help numb the area and reduce swelling.
- Exercise: Regular exercise can help strengthen the muscles in your back and prevent further injury. Low-impact exercises like walking, swimming, and yoga can be helpful in reducing lower back pain.
- Medications: Over-the-counter pain medications like ibuprofen and acetaminophen can help reduce pain and inflammation. Your doctor may prescribe stronger medications for severe lower back pain.
- Physical Therapy: A physical therapist can help you develop an exercise program that targets the specific muscles causing your pain. They can also teach you proper posture and body mechanics to prevent future injuries.
- Massage Therapy: Massage therapy can help relax tense muscles and improve circulation, reducing pain and promoting healing.
- Acupuncture: Acupuncture involves inserting thin needles into specific points on the body to promote healing and reduce pain. This treatment has been shown to be effective in treating lower back pain.
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.”