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 Symptoms
Pain in the lumbosacral area (lower part of the back) is the primary symptom of low back pain.
The pain may radiate down the front, side, or back of your leg, or it may be confined to the low back.
The pain may become worse with activity.
Occasionally, the pain may be worse at night or with prolonged sitting such as on a long car trip.
You may have numbness or weakness in the part of the leg that receives its nerve supply from a compressed nerve.
This can cause an inability to plantar flex the foot. This means you would be unable to stand on your toes or bring your foot downward. This occurs when the first sacral nerve is compressed or injured.
Another example would be the inability to raise your big toe upward. This results when the fifth lumbar nerve is compromised.
Back Pain Treatment
Self-Care at Home
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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Ibuprofen (Advil, Nuprin, or Motrin), available over the counter, is an excellent medication for the short-term treatment of low back pain. Because of the risk of ulcers and gastrointestinal bleeding, talk with your doctor about using this medication for a long time.
Acetaminophen (Tylenol) has been shown to be as effective as ibuprofen in relieving pain.
Topical agents such as deep-heating rubs have not been shown to be effective.
Some people seem to benefit from the use of ice or heat. Their use, although not proven effective, is not considered to be harmful. Take care: Do not use a heating pad on "high" or place ice directly on the skin.
Most experts agree that prolonged bed rest is associated with a longer recovery period. Further, people on bed rest are more likely to develop depression, blood clots in the leg, and decreased muscle tone. Very few experts recommend more than a 48-hour period of decreased activity or bed rest. In other words, get up and get moving to the extent you can.
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