Low Back Pain

You bend over to pick something up off the floor and suddenly feel a sharp pain in the low back.

You have a piece of furniture that REALLY belongs in the other corner of the room but you’re home alone.  It’s not that big, right?  I can move it myself.

You get home from work after 8 hours on your feet and think “I have to do something about my back.  I can’t handle another shift like that, the pain is too much.”

Do you have low back pain?  If so, you’re not alone.  Low back pain is one of the most common problems family doctors see.  From weekend warriors overdoing it at the gym, to sports injuries, to shoveling snow and pulling weeds and moving furniture, there are many ways to injure your back.

In fact, I’m having some trouble with MY low back this weekend!  Since yesterday afternoon I’ve had a sharp, aching pain in my right low back.  Standing up from sitting, rolling over in bed, picking things up off the floor and putting on my shoes have been an adventure today :-/

The most common cause of low back pain is a musculoskeletal injury.  For instance, you might slip on the ice and land on your back.  You also might lift something heavy or twist while carrying a baby. (That’s how I herniated a disc in my back over 10 years ago, bent over and twisted while putting my son in his crib.)

If you have low back pain, what do you do?  Well, of course the first thing to do is to see the doctor, especially if your pain is more than a simple “I overdid it” that goes away in a few days.  The doctor will ask questions about your pain, examine you, and may order tests and prescribe medicine to help you feel better.

When I see a patient with musculoskeletal back pain the first thing I do is to send them to physical therapy.  Most cases of low back pain are caused by two things: mechanical imbalance in the spine, and weak core support.  The therapists will help figure out what the patient is doing that might be making back pain worse (like bending and lifting improperly), teach strengthening exercises to address core weakness, and add treatments to relieve pain like traction, electrostim or ultrasound.

As I discussed in a previous post, chiropractic therapy is very helpful for low back pain as well.  Often manual therapy like massage and osteopathic or chiropractic adjustment can improve or relieve back pain very quickly.

If physical therapy and manual therapy don’t relieve symptoms in a few weeks we may discuss imaging like an Xray or MRI.  More serious problems may be present that need specialist care like injections or even surgery.

What are some of the danger signs that suggest low back pain is an urgent problem?  If you are having trouble emptying your bladder or controlling the bowels you need to see the doctor right away.  So-called “saddle anesthesia” which is numbness in the area between the legs (the part of you that would touch the saddle when riding horseback) may indicate damage to the spinal cord and should be checked out immediately.  Also, if you have a personal history of cancer then back pain could be a sign of a recurrence and should be reported to your doctor right away.

There are a few supplements that are helpful with musculoskeletal back pain.  Magnesium helps to relax muscles and can decrease pain from spasm.  Fish oil is helpful for painful conditions of all sorts, but you have to take a lot of it, as I wrote in a previous post.  Turmeric has anti-inflammatory properties.  (This is not an all-inclusive list, of course.)

Millions of people suffer with back pain every year.  Luckily most of the time it goes away without too much muss or fuss, with some simple strengthening exercises and pain-relieving medicines.  Most patients also benefit from some education on how to take good care of their back so the pain doesn’t come back.

Low back pain doesn’t have to take over your life!  It takes some time, work and patience, but straightening out the problems with your back is so worth the effort!

QUESTION: Do you have low back pain?  What have you found that helps?

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