Pain in the lower back is very common. It usually develops due to overuse or minor injuries, but sometimes there may be no obvious cause. Low back pain may also be a symptom of an underlying disease.
According to data from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, approximately 80% of adults will experience low back pain at some point in their lives.
The pain may appear suddenly or gradually, ranging from dull pain to severe pain. In some people, pain may be chronic.
In this article, we will explore some of the possible causes and treatments for low back pain. We also cover when to see a doctor.
Sprains and strains are common causes of low back pain. A sprain occurs when a person overstretches or tears a ligament, and performing the same operation on a tendon or muscle can cause a strain.
Back sprains and strains can be due to overuse, sports injuries, awkwardly twisting or lifting things that are too heavy or improper.
Symptoms of a back sprain or strain may include tenderness, swelling, and muscle cramps.
Learn more about strains and sprains here.
A person can usually treat back sprains and strains at home with rest, ice packs, and over-the-counter (OTC) anti-inflammatory drugs (such as ibuprofen and naproxen).
Stretching gently and performing low-impact activities, such as walking, may help prevent back muscles from becoming too tight.
A strong impact on the back can cause spinal injuries, such as vertebral fractures and herniated or ruptured discs. Possible reasons for this situation include falls, motor vehicle accidents and sports injuries.
Back pain usually occurs almost immediately after the injury. Other symptoms may include tingling and numbness radiating along the legs.
The treatment plan will depend on the type and severity of the injury. A person can treat minor injuries at home with rest, ice compresses, over-the-counter pain relievers, and gentle stretching.
For people with more serious injuries, doctors may recommend physical therapy, prescription drugs, or surgery.
Cauda equina syndrome is a rare disease that occurs when something compresses or damages the cauda equina nerve, which is a bundle of nerves in the lower part of the spinal cord.
This condition is usually caused by a herniated disc, but other causes include spinal stenosis and fractures, infections, and tumors that affect the spine. It can sometimes occur as a complication of spinal surgery.
Symptoms of cauda equina syndrome may include:
- Severe back pain
- Bowel and bladder problems
- Numbness, weakness, or loss of sensation in one or both legs
- Difficulty walking
Cauda equina syndrome is a medical emergency. If a person is not treated immediately, it can cause serious complications.
Doctors usually recommend surgery to relieve nerve pressure. This reduces a person’s risk of permanent paralysis and urinary incontinence.
The spine and surrounding tissues are sometimes infected with harmful bacteria, viruses or fungi.
Spinal infections occur when infections from other parts of the body spread to the spine. They may also develop after injury or spinal surgery, or as a complication of diseases such as diabetes, cancer, and HIV.
Some examples of spinal infections include vertebral osteomyelitis (an infection of the bones of the spine) and epidural abscess (an infection that occurs in the protective film surrounding the spinal cord).
Symptoms of a spinal infection may include:
- Severe back pain
- Swelling, flushing, and tenderness in the back
- Muscle cramps
- Loss of sensation in the legs
- Fever and chills
Treatment depends on the cause, but may include taking antibiotics or antifungal drugs. For people with severe infections, doctors may recommend surgery to relieve pressure on the spine and drain the infected area.
When the intervertebral discs between the spine begin to wear out, degenerative disc disease occurs.
These discs act as protective pads, so when they degenerate, the vertebrae may begin to rub against each other, causing back pain.
This pain may increase with bending, twisting, and lifting, but it improves with walking or moving.
Learn more about degenerative disc disease here.
Treatment options for degenerative disc disease include:
- Try physical and occupational therapy
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Take over-the-counter medicines and prescription pain relievers
If these treatments do not work, the doctor may recommend surgery.
Sciatica can cause severe back pain, which radiates down through the hips to the legs. It occurs when the sciatic nerve is compressed. Causes may include spinal stenosis and a herniated or ruptured disc.
Other symptoms may include numbness or burning and tingling in the legs. When a person moves, sneezes or coughs, the symptoms may get worse.
A person can usually treat mild symptoms at home with rest, ice packs, and over-the-counter pain relievers. For more severe symptoms, the doctor may recommend steroid injections or surgery.
Learn more about how to relieve sciatica here.
Scoliosis is a side curvature of the spine that can cause unevenness in the shoulders and hips. This condition often affects children 11-12 years old, usually just before they suddenly grow. However, scoliosis can develop at any age.
Children with scoliosis are more likely to have low back pain as adults.
Learn more about scoliosis here.
Treatment depends on the degree of curvature and the person’s age. It may be beneficial for your child to wear a special harness as they grow up, as this may help prevent further curvature of the spine.
In adults, treatment may involve painkillers and exercise to improve flexibility and posture.
The doctor may recommend surgery for children or adults with severe scoliosis. A common surgical method for scoliosis is spinal fusion, in which a surgeon fuse two or more vertebrae together to straighten the spine.
Spinal stenosis is the narrowing of the spinal canal, which puts pressure on the spinal cord and nerve roots. This situation is most common in people over 50 years of age.
Symptoms of spinal stenosis may include:
- Low back pain
- Numbness or weakness in one or both legs
- Difficulty walking
Home treatments for spinal stenosis can include over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen or naproxen, and exercises to strengthen back muscles and improve mobility.
For people with more severe symptoms, doctors may recommend injections of steroids, nerve blockers, or surgery.
Lower back pain can sometimes be a symptom of a condition that is not directly related to the back.
Some other possible causes of low back pain include:
Low back pain does not always have an obvious cause, and it usually gets better on its own. Resting, trying heat or cold therapy, taking over-the-counter pain relievers, and gentle stretching may help speed recovery.
However, if the low back pain is severe, does not seem to get better, or appears with other related symptoms, such as tingling or numbness in the legs, you should see a doctor.
Patients with low back pain should seek medical attention immediately if they have any of the following symptoms at the same time:
- Difficulty walking or moving legs
- Loss of bowel or bladder function
- Loss of sensation in the legs
- Very severe pain
A doctor can help people determine the underlying cause of low back pain and recommend appropriate treatments.
Low back pain is very common, and there is not always an obvious cause. However, low back pain can sometimes be a symptom of an underlying disease, such as injury, infection, or spinal problems.
Regular exercise, good posture, and a healthy weight can help reduce the risk of low back pain.
A person can usually treat low back pain at home by resting, trying heat or cold therapy, taking over-the-counter pain relievers, and gentle stretching.
However, if the back pain is severe, does not get better, or occurs at the same time as other related symptoms, you should see a doctor.
If low back pain affects coordination or bladder or bowel control, seek medical attention immediately.