What Causes Lower Back Pain? How to Get Relief From an Achy Back
Lower back pain is very common - over 80% of Americans will experience it at some point in their lives. Below are some common causes of lower back pain and how they can be treated.
Lower back pain interferes with many aspects of life - work, sleep, exercise, family time. It saps the fun right out of those activities and makes them painful. Over 80% of Americans will experience low back pain at some point in their lifetime, and that's really no surprise. The human body is very complex, with the spinal column and surrounding muscles being no different. The fact that 20% of the population claims to not experience back pain is amazing!
At any given moment, over 77 million people in the US experience low back pain. This is roughly 25% of the population. Many of these people are experiencing pain so bad that they have to call out of work because they simply can't function. Back pain is actually the 2nd most common reason that people miss work in the United States, and it's the 5th most common reason for a visit to the doctor. It's even estimated that lower back pain costs the economy 135 billion dollars each year (in medical expenses and other associated costs)
So we know lower back pain is bad and is causing all of these social issues, but what are the underlying causes of back pain? If we can pinpoint the causes of back pain, we can work to eliminate it entirely. The truth is that there are many, many different causes of lower back pain. Pages and pages could be written on the subject, so in this article we're just going to work on a handful of common causes of low back pain and how they can be treated.
A person living a sedentary lifestyle is often also out of shape. Being out of shape means that the muscles are weaker, as they don't get used too much. This includes the ones in the back. Weak low back muscles = low back pain. When the body has a hard time supporting itself with the muscles, it tends to rest upon other things instead. This means that instead of muscles holding the back in good alignment, the bones and ligaments to do all the work. They weren't really designed for this, so when the bones and ligaments start doing overtime to compensate for weak back muscles, it creates low back pain.
Exercise, especially exercises that work the back, will help strengthen the back muscles and alleviate some of the stress on the spine and ligaments surrounding it. Most exercise works the lower back to an extent, especially lifting weights (the low back helps stabilize the core). If you have minor back pain, it may be a good idea to start exercising the low back muscles before it gets too severe.
Even simple things like walking or jogging will work the back muscles to an extent. The main goal it to start living an active lifestyle. Even if your back doesn't get too much stronger, you will start to feel less pain if you are able to lose some weight. Losing 5 or 10 pounds means that you don't have 5 or 10 pounds of extra weight resting on the spine.
Injuries, whether chronic or acute, are another main reason that people have back pain. Some say that a back injury is forever - for more serious injuries this may be true. Dull aches and pains from your heavy lifting days might persist for the rest of your life. An acute injury may turn into chronic pain with time, depending on the severity.
Other injuries might include blunt force or trauma to the back. An ATV accident might cause whiplash or trauma to the spine, for example. Injuries almost always cause pain, especially in the back.
Prophylactic methods are the preferred treatment for injuries. If you don't get injured, then there won't be any pain. Take care with your back. When lifting something heavy, try using a back brace that supports the spinal column and surrounding tissues. Always try to lift with your knees and not with your back. This helps prevent you from pulling your back out or herniating a disc.
For injuries that are causing you chronic pain, the best way to treat it is to mitigate the symptoms. Try the RICE method - this will help combat inflammation and pain (elevation can't really be done on the back so just find a comfortable place to lay). If the pain is severe then try an over the counter painkiller that also works on inflammation. If your back pain is severe, you should see a doctor. They may be able to prescribe medication, a rehabilitation program, or even recommend surgery to help reduce the pain.
Note that surgery should only be done as a last resort. Though we're getting good at fixing the human body in this day and age, results aren't always as desired. There are certain risks involved with surgery that you should talk to your doctor about.
You probably spend a lot of time at work. Most Americans do, roughly 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. If you work in an office, then you know how tough it can be to sit for long periods of time. This sitting isn't necessarily good for your back, especially if you have posture issues and tend to slouch or hunch over. Sitting can exacerbate back pain if you're prone to it, and may actually cause low back pain over time. This is especially true if you spend years over the course of your working life sitting in awkward positions.
Even in comfortable chairs, sitting isn't really great for the back. Sitting puts stresses on the back and lumbar area that aren't normally there when you lay or stand. These stresses change the natural curvature of the spine and can lead to low back pain in some situations.
Most office chairs these days are pretty ergonomic and comfortable. There even special chairs that put the body in more of a reclined, laying down position. These chairs are excellent for the back because they take stress off the spine and musculature. Be sure to adjust your chair as best as you can so that your sitting position is as natural as possible. You shouldn't be too slouched over or craning over your keyboard as you work.
Even after adjusting your chair, sitting isn't too great for the back. Converting to a standing workstation may be an option for you - an added benefit here is that you burn more calories hourly. This can help especially if you have a sedentary lifestyle. An alternative is to get up and walk around for 5 to 10 minutes every couple hours. If your workplace doesn't let you leave your desk for too long, simply standing up and working in a standing position for 10 minutes may help you stretch your back enough to get some relief.
This is a more serious issue than posture or the chair you sit in. Sometimes low back pain can be the sign of an internal organ issue. For example, kidney pain can feel like low back pain. If you have kidney pain this might signify that you have kidney stones. Females may experience ovary pain which can be a result of things like endometriosis or ovarian cysts. There are all kinds of organs in your abdomen that can start hurting for seemingly no apparent reason.
If you have reason to believe that your pain is internal and not a result of your spine or surrounding muscles, then you should go see a doctor as soon as you can. There are no stretches or exercises you can do for something like organ failure or cancer!
Aging is a fact of life, and, after a certain point, the muscles and ligaments start to lose their elasticity. Bones become less dense and more brittle. Muscles aren't as strong as they once were. This can result in pinched nerves, muscle irritation, and bone damage.
With age, our ability to heal starts to lessen. Straining your back in your 50s is not going to heal as well at it might have in your 20s. Unfortunately, with age comes various pains. This includes back pain.
Using a good back brace can help relieve pressure on the spine. Something with lots of support like the miami lumbar back brace (especially when combined with the supportive posterior panel) can hold up the back and eliminate pains you might be experiencing. Keep in mind that wearing a brace for a long period of time may weaken certain muscles even further, so perhaps only wear your back brace on the days where you are experiencing lots of pain. Walkers and canes are a popular solution for persons who are very advanced in age.
Becker A, Held H, Redaelli M, et al. Low Back Pain in Primary Care: Costs of Care and Prediction of Future Health Care Utilization. Spine. 2010;35:1714-1720.
Blackmore CC, Mecklenburg RS, Kaplan GS. At Virginia Mason, Collaboration Among Providers, Employers, And Health Plans To Transform Care Cut Costs And Improved Quality. Health Affairs. 2011;30:1680-1687.
Croft PR, Macfarlane GJ, Papageorgiou AC, Thomas E, Silman AJ. Outcome of low back pain in general practice: a prospective study. Bmj. 1998;316:1356-1359.
Freburger JK, Holmes GM, Agans RP, et al. The rising prevalence of chronic low back pain. Archives of internal medicine. 2009;169:251-258.
Fritz JM, Childs JD, Wainner RS, Flynn TW. Primary care referral of patients with low back pain to physical therapy: impact on future health care utilization and costs. Spine. 2012;37:2114-2121.
Luo X, Pietrobon R, Sun S, Liu G, Hey L. Estimates and patterns of direct health care expenditures among individuals with back pain in the United States. Spine. 2004;29:79