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Understanding Low Back Pain: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Low back pain is a common issue that affects millions of people worldwide. It’s estimated that about 80% of adults experience low back pain at some point in their lives. The low back is a complex area of the body that supports much of our weight, and any injury or damage to this area can lead to pain and discomfort. From those who suffer from chronic conditions to weekend warriors injured playing pick-up basketball, low back pain can be debilitating and frustrating for everyone dealing with this common problem. In this article, we will explore the anatomy of the lumbar spine, the types of injuries that can cause low back pain, common symptoms, and the treatments available to alleviate it.

Anatomy of the Low Back 

The lumbar spine is made up of five vertebrae which are stacked on top of a triangular bone called the sacrum. The sacrum connects the spine to the pelvis. Between each vertebra, there are intervertebral discs, jelly-like cushions that act as shock absorbers. Additionally, the low back has strong muscles and ligaments that play a crucial role in supporting the spine and allowing for movement in the hips, pelvis, and trunk. Damage or injury to any of these structures mentioned can cause low back pain.

Types of Injuries

Various types of injuries can cause low back pain. Some of the common injuries that result in low back pain are muscle strains, ligament sprains, herniated discs, spinal stenosis, osteoarthritis, spondylolisthesis, degenerative disc disease, and fractures.

  • Muscle strains happen when there is a tear of the muscle in the low back. This can be caused when the muscle is stretched beyond it’s normal limits or when there is too much force on the muscle that exceeds the muscle’s capacity.
  • Ligament Sprains occur in the low back when the ligaments become stretched beyond their normal limits causing damage to the tissue.
  • Herniated discs occur when the inner part of the intervertebral disc protrudes from the disc. This can potentially put pressure on the nerve root and cause symptoms to radiate into the lower extremities. 
  • Spinal stenosis is a condition where the spinal canal narrows, causing pressure on the spinal cord and causing low back pain. This condition can be congenital or acquired (through trauma or degeneration). 
  • Osteoarthritis is when the cartilage that cushions the joints wears away, resulting in joint degeneration.
  • Spondylolisthesis is a condition characterized by instability in the spine, resulting in excessive movement of the vertebrae. Specifically, a vertebra slips out of alignment and onto the one below it, potentially causing pressure on a nerve and leading to discomfort in the low back or legs.
  • Degenerative disc disease is a condition that occurs with age, where the intervertebral discs shrink and lose their ability to cushion and absorb shock.
  • Fracture is when there is a break in the vertebra.
Common Symptoms of Low Back Pain

Symptoms will likely vary depending on the cause and severity of the injury. Some individuals may experience localized pain in the low back. Others may experience pain, numbness, and/or tingling that radiates in the buttocks or down one or both legs. Other common symptoms include stiffness, weakness, and muscle spasms. Other symptoms such as sudden weight loss, illness/fever, extreme fatigue, and symptoms unchanged by position changes or rest may indicate a more severe underlying condition and these individuals should be further assessed by a qualified medical doctor.

Treatment of Low Back Pain

The treatment options for low back pain depend on the cause, severity, and duration. Patients that experience low back pain that impedes their ability to function and reduces their quality of life may benefit from physical therapy. Physical therapy aims to identify the cause of symptoms and address impairments that are likely contributing to symptoms. Injections are another form of treatment that may be utilized in some individuals as a way to reduce symptoms. Surgery is considered a last resort for those who do not find relief with more conservative treatment options.

Before embarking on any treatment plan, it is advisable to consult with a medical professional to determine the correct course of action.

Preventing Low Back Pain

There are strategies individuals can utilize to help prevent low back pain. Maintaining proper mobility of the surrounding joints including the hips, ankles, thoracic spine, and shoulders can help reduce stress in the lumbar spine. Utilizing a stand-up desk or taking frequent standing/walking breaks at work can be beneficial. Individuals should work on living an active lifestyle and incorporate a consistent exercise routine. Lifting with proper mechanics is another strategy to reduce the risk of injury and prevent the onset of pain.

Low back pain is a common problem that can be caused by a variety of factors, including injury, poor posture, or natural age changes to the body. Understanding the anatomy of the area by identifying the types of injuries that can cause low back pain is the first step. By also knowing the common symptoms, you can determine the best course of action and actively seek treatment. Let us always remember that prevention is the best treatment; thus, keeping an active lifestyle, maintaining a healthy weight, and avoiding excessive bending and lifting can help to keep your back healthy and free from pain.

If you do have low back pain, speaking with a physical therapist can help determine the underlying causes of your pain. Together, we can create an effective treatment plan. Schedule a consultation with one of our physical therapists today to get started!

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