Most of us will experience low back pain at some point in our lives. When it sticks around or is severe, it’s time to talk to your healthcare provider. There are a range of treatment options that can help relieve your pain. Read on to learn about some of the causes of low back pain and what you can do to prevent it.
Back to basics
First, it’s helpful to understand how your lower back works. Your lower back is the area between the lowest rib and the upper part of the buttock. There are five vertebrae or small bones stacked on top of each other with cushioning discs in between. This part of your back has a natural inward curvature. Large muscles and bands of flexible tissue called ligaments enable your lower back to twist and bend. In addition to helping you move, the lower part of your spine protects the nerves that carry signals between your legs and brain. To put it simply, it’s complicated!
What causes low back pain?1
Injury, disease, poor posture and aging are some factors that can cause low back pain.
1. Injury - Common causes of injury include a fall, sudden movement or lifting something heavy. Some types of low back injuries:
- Strain: a muscle is stretched to the point of tearing
- Sprain: ligaments are stretched too far
- Herniated disc: the jelly-like center of a disc can break through the tough outer layer and irritate a nearby nerve root
- Trauma: a fracture or dislocation can be caused by a car accident or a fall
2. Disease - The lower back is a complex structure, which means many opportunities for something to go wrong. A doctor may use imaging like an X-ray, MRI or CT scan to diagnose a disease in your lower back, such as:
- Degenerative disc disease: with age, discs lose water and wear down, which can lead to herniation
- Facet joint dysfunction: the joints behind discs become painful
- Sacroiliac joint dysfunction: the joint that connects the spine to each side of the pelvis becomes inflamed or moves too much or too little
- Spinal stenosis: narrowing of the spinal canal that surrounds the nerve roots
- Spondylolisthesis: when one vertebra slips over another one
- Osteoarthritis: a normal age-related change in the articular surface of the vertebrae
- Compression fracture: a bone collapses on itself, usually due to weak bones
3. Postural-related pain - Static postures such as sitting, standing or even lying down for extended periods can cause low back pain.
4. Aging - As we age, most of us will develop some degree of osteoarthritis, degenerative disc disease, facet joint and sacroiliac joint dysfunction, although this does not always cause pain or become symptomatic. There are other important factors that can lead to lower back pain as we get older including excess body weight and a lack of exercise.2
What can I do to help prevent low back pain?
Firstly, regular daily exercise and activities such as walking, swimming, cycling, weight training, as well as specific back strengthening exercises can help prevent low back pain. Your posture is also important. Reducing static and sedentary postures and positions such as an office desk-based environment by taking regular breaks and changing positions. 3
When to seek medical attention
Left untreated, low back pain can keep you from doing the things you love and lead to other health problems. It can also disrupt your sleep and interfere with your social life.2 Low back pain that lasts for more than three months is considered chronic. If your back pain doesn’t go away on its own or is severe, it’s time to see a doctor. Your doctor can help diagnose what’s causing your pain and create a treatment plan for you.
Keep moving forward
Exercises prescribed by your doctor or physical therapist can help strengthen your muscles, improve body mechanics and promote healing. Exercise might be painful or tiring, but that’s normal. Speak with your doctor if you have any concerns. Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix for low back pain, and it may take three months or more for symptoms to improve. Follow your doctor’s advice to get back to doing what you love.
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- Low Back Pain Fact Sheet. NIH. https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Fact-Sheets/Low-Back-Pain-Fact-Sheet#3102_3
- Low back pain in older adults: risk factors, management options and future directions. NIH. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5395891/, Published Apr 18, 2017.
- Prevent Back Pain. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. https://health.gov/myhealthfinder/topics/everyday-healthy-living/safety/prevent-back-pain, Updated Jul 8, 2021.