Low Back Pain
by Cynthia M. Johnson, MA
Low back pain is an ache or discomfort in the lower part of the spine. This area has many small bones and muscles that surround and protect the spinal cord and nerves.
Many things can cause low back pain. Some causes are:
Health problems that can also cause back pain include:
This problem is more common in older adults but can happen at any age. Things that may increase the risk of injury are:
Job-related strain, such as:
The back pain may be constant or come and go. It may be worse with motion, sitting, standing, bending, and twisting. If a nerve is irritated, the pain may spread into the buttock or leg on one side. Muscle weakness or numbness may also occur.
When Should I Call My Doctor?
Some problems may need care right away. Call the doctor if you have:
The doctor will ask about symptoms and past health. A physical exam will be done. The exam will focus on the back, hips, and legs.
Imaging tests are rarely needed. They may be done for pain that is severe or does not get better with treatment.
Back pain often improves with home care and time. If the pain is new, steps that may help to ease pain include:
Back pain can linger for longer periods of time. Steps that may help chronic back pain include:
Other treatments that may be helpful include:
Surgery may be needed for pain that is making day to day life difficult. Other treatments will be tried first before surgery. The type of surgery will depend on what is causing pain. Choices include:
Not all back pain can be prevented. Some things that may help are:
North American Spine Society
Ortho Info—American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
Canadian Orthopaedic Association
Canadian Orthopaedic Foundation
Acute low back pain. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/acute-low-back-pain. Accessed January 28, 2021.
Chronic low back pain. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/chronic-low-back-pain. Accessed January 28, 2021.
National Guideline Centre. Low back pain and sciatica in over 16s: assessment and management. London (UK): National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE); 2016 Nov 30. 18 p.
12/14/2016 DynaMed Plus Systematic Literature Surveillance https://www.dynamed.com/condition/chronic-low-back-pain: Cherkin DC, Sherman KJ, Balderson BH, et al. Effect of mindfulness-based stress reduction vs cognitive behavioral therapy or usual care on back pain and functional limitations in adults with chronic low back pain: a randomized clinical trial. JAMA 2016;315(12):1240-1249.
Last reviewed January 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Teresa Briedwell, PT, DPT, OCS, CSCS