Pain in the lower back or low back pain is a common concern, affecting up to 90% of Americans at some point in their lifetime. Up to 50% will have more than one episode. Low back pain is not a specific disease. Rather, it is a symptom that may occur from a variety of different processes. In up to 85% of people with low back pain, despite a thorough medical examination, no specific cause of the pain can be identified.


Back pain can have many underlying reasons, but often no specific cause will be found and the pain will stop. This chapter tries to touch on many of the causes of back pain and proper evaluation and diagnosis. Please make sure to discuss your individual symptoms as well as the suggested treatments with your health-care provider to determine the appropriate diagnostic and treatment plan for your circumstances.


Back Pain Causes


Back pain is a symptom. Common causes of back pain involve disease or injury to the muscles, bones, and/or nerves of the spine. Pain arising from abnormalities of organs within the abdomen, pelvis, or chest may also be felt in the back. This is called referred pain. Many intra-abdominal disorders, such as appendicitis, aneurysms, kidney diseases, bladder infections, pelvic infections, and ovarian disorders, among others, can cause pain referred to the back. Normal pregnancy can cause back pain in many ways, including stretching ligaments within the pelvis, irritating nerves, and straining the low back. Your doctor will have this in mind when evaluating your pain.


Nerve root syndromes are those that produce symptoms of nerve impingement (a nerve is directly irritated), often due to a herniation (or bulging) of the disc between the lower back bones. Sciatica is an example of nerve root impingement. Impingement pain tends to be sharp, affecting a specific area, and associated with numbness in the area of the leg that the affected nerve supplies.


Herniated discs are produced as the spinal discs degenerate or grow thinner. The jellylike central portion of the disc bulges out of the central cavity and pushes against a nerve root. Intervertebral discs begin to degenerate by the third decade of life. Herniated discs are found in one-third of adults older than 20 years of age. Only 3% of these, however, produce symptoms of nerve impingement.


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Back Pain Treatment


General recommendations are to resume normal, or near normal, activity as soon as possible. However, stretching or activities that place additional strain on the back are discouraged.


Sleeping with a pillow between the knees while lying on one side may increase comfort. Some doctors recommend lying on your back with a pillow under your knees.


No specific back exercises were found that improved pain or increased functional ability in people with acute back pain. Exercise, however, may be useful for people with chronic back pain to help them return to normal activities and work. Nonprescription medications may provide relief from pain.


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