Most people—80% of Americans, in fact—experience low back pain at some time in their lives. It is the second most common reason people visit their doctors. Besides the discomfort and impact on quality of life, low back pain causes thousands of hours of missed work each year. It also has the potential to create dependency on prescription pain drugs.
Many of episodes of low back pain will get better in a few days or weeks, but the pain can become chronic, meaning it lasts for more than three months.
Learn what should you do if you experience low back pain, how can it be prevented, and when should you seek medical attention immediately.
Low Back Pain Red Flags
I’ll start with the last first. While most back pain is not caused by any serious underlying condition, it is important to seek medical care if you have any of the following symptoms along with your low back pain:
- Unexpected weight loss
- Back pain lasting longer than 4 weeks
- Sudden changes in bowel or bladder function
- Weakness or sensory loss that gets continually worse
Understanding Low Back Pain
Many parts of the back can cause pain, including bone (vertebrae), discs (the cushions between the vertebrae), muscles, ligaments, nerves, and facet joints (the cushions connecting the back of the spine).
Injuries or muscle and ligament strains are often the cause of short-lived low back pain. Temporarily limiting your activity and using over-the-counter medications may be all you need to help your body recover.
If your pain lasts more than three months, it is often considered to be chronic low back pain. This is a more complicated situation.
Treating Low Back Pain
A medical exam and several tests can help your doctor identify the source of your pain, confirm a problem, rule out certain serious conditions, and then determine the best treatment. This might include physical therapy, medications, injections, chiropractic treatments, relaxation techniques, or acupuncture.
If these treatments are not working, you may be referred to a pain management specialist. If your condition is serious enough to consider surgery, a spine surgeon would be consulted.
Prevent Low Back Pain Before It Starts
Of course the best advice is to avoid low back pain altogether. Here are a few tips to help you do that:
- Stay physically active: Exercise can help delay or prevent back pain and other chronic condition, along with managing stress. Walking, stretching and low-impact exercise helps keep muscles strong and flexible. Too much rest leads to stiffness and weakness.
- Lift properly: Lift with your legs and avoid bending at the waist to put less strain on your back.
- Practice good posture: Sit up straight and keep your shoulders back when standing.
- Don’t smoke...and if you do, stop! People who smoke are much more likely to develop chronic back pain than those who don’t smoke. Smoking negatively affects the vascular structures of discs and joints.