Lower back pain is one of the most common forms of discomfort faced by Americans. Whether through injury or age-related changes, most people will encounter some form of low back pain at some point in their lives. Individual cases can range in severity from mild tweaks due to physical exertion all the way to debilitating pain related to a spine condition.
Even a minor backache can be a major inconvenience — and it can come with the risk of worsening. This is why it’s important for everyone to take steps to prevent lower back pain whenever possible, and properly manage and care for their condition if they are dealing with pain or discomfort. The following information can help you take control of your pain and achieve the best possible quality of life.
Understanding Lower Back Pain and Common Causes
Lower back pain is a broad and general term describing any symptoms of discomfort occurring in the area of the back extending just below the ribcage to just above the hips and buttocks. This includes the lumbar, or lower, region of the spinal column as well as supporting muscles, tendons and ligaments. Lower back pain is an extremely common condition and affects millions of people of all ages, but becomes more common with age.
Because the lower back and spine must support the weight of the upper body while remaining flexible enough for basic movement, this area is under tremendous stress on a daily basis. This is why injuries to this area are so common, and why the lower spine is so vulnerable to natural aging and degenerative conditions.
Common causes of lower back pain include:
- Muscle strains, especially from physical labor and strenuous exercise
- Ligament sprains and tears
- Conditions affecting the spinal discs, such as bulging and herniated discs
- Osteoarthritis of the spine, also known as facet disease
- Any condition that causes spinal stenosis, which is narrowing of the spinal column and resulting nerve compression
Lower back pain can be acute, lasting for a short period of time often due to an injury or strain, or chronic, lasting or recurring for months or longer. Chronic lower back pain is often related to degenerative spine conditions, but it can also be caused by repetitive injuries. Both acute and chronic lower back pain can range from mild to severe and debilitating.
Can You Prevent Lower Back Pain?
There is no way to completely prevent the occurrence of either acute or chronic lower back pain, but it is possible to significantly lower your risk of injury or developing age-related conditions. By understanding the most common risk factors and taking active steps to address them, anyone looking to avoid lower back pain can put themselves in the best possible position.
Doctors and medical researchers have identified the following risk factors as having a high association with lower back pain:
- An overly sedentary lifestyle, which can lead to weaker supporting muscles and rapid breakdown of soft tissue structures in the spine
- Being overweight or obese, which adds to the stress on the spinal column
- Having a physical job that involves heavy lifting and/or repetitive motions
- Smoking or tobacco use
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- A nutrient-poor diet high in saturated fats and processed foods
There are some factors, such as genetics, that are beyond anyone’s control, but by practicing a healthy lifestyle including getting regular exercise, practicing good posture, and eating a healthy diet, it is possible to lower the risk of lower back pain.
Tips for Managing Everyday Discomfort
A large number of cases of lower back pain are highly manageable and can improve with time. In these situations, there are a few steps that can help reduce discomfort and maintain an active lifestyle. Basic measures to manage lower back pain include:
- Performing gentle stretches every day, especially in the morning
- Using a heat source, such as a heating pad, in combination with an ice pack or other form of cold compression
- Getting plenty of rest and avoiding overexertion
- Staying hydrated
- Taking over-the-counter medication, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS)
- Engaging in light exercise, such as walking for 10 to 20 minutes every day
- Getting a good night’s sleep
If lower back pain is affecting sleep quality, make sure that you are sleeping on a supportive mattress. Older, worn out mattresses can worsen and exacerbate lower back pain.
Treating Chronic Lower Back Pain
If lower back pain does not improve in a few days to a week, it is important to see a doctor or pain management specialist for diagnosis and treatment. Identifying the source of back pain through a physical examination, discussion of symptoms, and diagnostic imagery such as an MRI is essential to managing symptoms on a long-term basis.
Chronic lower back pain can often benefit from more involved treatments and interventions, such as:
- Physical therapy to help strengthen supporting structures, address postural issues, and improve range of motion
- Spinal injections, such as lumbar epidural steroid injections, to reduce inflammation and pain on a medium-term basis
- Assistance with lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking
- Nutritional counseling
- Alternative treatments, such as massage therapy or acupuncture
Even non-reversible conditions such as arthritis or degenerative disc disease can be effectively managed through conservative therapies and interventional pain management.
When to Consider Surgery for Lower Back Pain
For spine conditions, back surgery can start to become a serious option if weeks or months of conservative treatment has been explored without bringing the relief necessary for a good quality of life. In many cases, a minimally invasive outpatient procedure can help relieve nerve compression and achieve lasting relief of lower back pain. With muscle-sparing techniques and a very small incision, spine surgeons can help patients achieve a shorter recovery time with less risk of complication compared to traditional open spine procedures.
From Basic Care to Minimally Invasive Spine Surgery, PPOA Can Help You Explore Your Options
No matter where you are on your lower back pain relief journey, from prevention to management to treatment, the compassionate team at Physician Partners of America (PPOA) is here to help. We can put you in touch with the providers who are right for your needs and help you develop an individualized treatment plan. You don’t have to live with lower back pain. Contact PPOA today and take control of your care.