Covers the causes and symptoms of low back pain. Looks at treatment with rest, over-the-counter pain medicine, and heating pads. Includes steps to prevent low back pain from returning, such as practicing good posture and getting regular exercise.
Low Back Pain
Is this topic for you?
This topic provides a
general overview of low back pain. If you have been diagnosed with a herniated
disc or spinal stenosis, see the topic
Herniated Disc or
Lumbar Spinal Stenosis.
What is low back pain?
Low back pain can happen anywhere below the ribs and above the legs. It is possible to hurt your back when
you lift, reach, or twist. In fact, almost everyone has low back pain at
one time or another.
don't really know what causes low back pain.
What are the symptoms?
Depending on the cause, low
back pain can cause a range of symptoms. The pain may be dull or sharp. It may be in one small area or over a broad area. You may have muscle spasms.
Low back pain can also cause leg symptoms, such as pain, numbness, or tingling, often extending below
A rare but serious problem called
cauda equina syndrome can occur if the nerves at the
end of the spinal cord are squeezed. Seek emergency treatment if you have
weakness or numbness in both legs or you lose bladder or bowel control.
Most low back pain is short-term (acute) and will go away in a few weeks. It is more likely to become long-lasting (chronic) if you are depressed or under stress.
How is low back pain diagnosed?
Your doctor will
ask questions about your past health, symptoms, and activities. He or she will also do a physical exam. Your answers and the exam
can help rule out a serious cause for the pain. In most cases,
doctors are able to recommend treatment after the first exam.
But if you have a back pain problem that has lasted longer than 6 weeks, or if your doctor thinks you may have more than muscle pain, it might be time for one of these tests.
How is it treated?
Most low back pain will improve
with basic first aid, which includes continuing to do light activity such as walking, and taking over-the-counter pain medicine as needed.
Walking is the simplest and maybe the best exercise for the lower back. It gets your blood moving and helps your muscles stay strong.
Your doctor or physical therapist can recommend more specific exercises to help your back muscles get stronger. These may include a series of
simple exercises called
core stabilization. Strengthening
the muscles in your trunk can improve your posture, keep your body in better balance, and
lower your chance of injury.
If your symptoms are severe or you still have symptoms after
2 weeks of self-care, see your doctor. You may need stronger pain medicines, or
you might benefit from
Each of the various treatments for back pain work for some people
but not for others. You may need to try different things to see which work best
for you, such as:
Having ongoing (chronic) back
pain can make you depressed. In turn, depression can have an effect on your
level of pain and whether your back gets better. People with depression and
chronic pain often benefit from both antidepressant medicines and counseling. Counseling can help you learn stress
management and pain control skills.
How can you prevent low back pain from returning?
After you've had low back pain, you're likely to have
it again. But there are some things you can do to
help prevent it. And they can help you get better faster if you
do have low back pain again.
To help keep your back healthy and avoid further pain:
Practice good posture when you sit, stand,
and walk. "Good posture" generally means your ears, shoulders,
and hips are in a straight line.
Get regular, low-impact exercise. Walk, swim, or ride a
stationary bike. Stretch before you exercise.
Spinal tumors, which are growths on the bones and ligaments of the spine, on the spinal cord, or on nerve
Symptoms of low back pain depend on the cause.
Back sprain or strain
Muscle spasms, cramping, and
Pain in the back and sometimes in the buttock. It may come on quickly or gradually. It most often occurs in
episodes. Certain movements make it worse, and doing light activities such as walking makes it feel better. The worst pain usually lasts 48 to 72 hours and may be
followed by days or weeks of less severe pain.
Symptoms typically include:
Leg pain. If pain extends below the knee, it is
more likely to be due to pressure on a nerve than to a muscle problem. Most
commonly, it's a pain that starts in the buttock and travels down the back of the leg
as far as the ankle or foot. This pain pattern is known as
sciatica (say "sy-AT-ih-kuh").
For more information, see the topic Sciatica.
Nerve-related problems, such as tingling,
numbness, or weakness in one leg or in the foot, lower leg, or both legs.
Tingling may begin in the buttock and extend to the ankle or foot. Weakness or
numbness in both legs, or loss of bladder and/or bowel control, are symptoms of
cauda equina syndrome, which requires immediate
Starts gradually, gets worse over time,
and lasts longer than 3 to 6 months.
Is generally worse in the morning or
after prolonged periods of inactivity. Arthritis pain gets better when you move
Symptoms of diseases that affect the spine depend on the disease. They may include:
Pain that is worse in the affected part of the
spine (for instance, if there is a compression fracture, tumor, or
Pain that starts gradually, is constant, and may be
sharp or a dull ache. Bed rest doesn't help and may make it worse
(for example, tumors on the spine often cause night pain). The pain lasts longer than 2 to 3
Sensitivity of the spine to touch and
Pain that wakes you up from sleep.
The course of
low back pain depends both on its cause and on how
well you treat your back.
Most low back pain goes away within several weeks. But after you have had back pain once, you're more likely to have it again. Many people who recover
have back pain again within a year, and most people will
have it again sometime during their lives.
pain not only makes you tired, irritable, and less productive and less active but also can trigger other problems. If your back pain causes you to use your body in
different ways (for example, to limp or to sit differently), pain can develop in
other areas of the body. Pain can also cause biochemical changes in your body
that tend to keep the pain going. Without special treatment,
you may get chronic pain syndrome.
What Increases Your Risk
A risk factor is
something that increases your chances of having back pain. Having more risk factors
means you have a higher chance of having back pain.
Physical and family risk factors
Being middle-aged or older
Having a family history of back
Having had a back injury before
pregnant. A woman's back is significantly stressed by carrying a baby.
Risk factors you can change with lifestyle changes
Not getting regular exercise
a job or other activity that requires long periods of sitting, heavy lifting, bending or twisting, repetitive motions, or constant vibration, such
as using a jackhammer or driving certain types of heavy
Smoking. People who smoke are more likely than people who don't smoke to have
low back pain.
Being overweight. Excess body weight, especially
around the waist, may put strain on your back, although this has not been
proved. But being overweight often also means being in poor physical condition,
with weaker muscles and less flexibility. These can lead to low back
Having poor posture. Slumping or slouching on its own may not
cause low back pain. But after the back has been strained or injured, bad
posture can make pain worse. "Good posture" generally means your ears, shoulders,
and hips are in a straight line. If this posture causes pain, you may have another condition such as a problem
with a disc or bones in your back.
Being under stress. Stress and other
emotional factors are believed to play a major role in low back pain,
particularly chronic low back pain. Many people unconsciously tighten their
back muscles when they are under stress.
Risk factors you might change with medical treatment
Having long periods of
Using medicines long-term that weaken bones, such as
illness or disease that causes chronic coughing
When to Call a Doctor
Call 911 or other emergency services immediately if:
Back pain occurs with chest pain or
other symptoms of a heart attack.
A person has signs of damage to the
spine after an injury (such as a car
accident, fall, or direct blow to the
spine). Signs may include:
Being unable to move part of
Severe back or neck pain.
Weakness, tingling, or numbness in
the arms or legs.
Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:
You have new numbness in your legs or numbness in your legs that is getting worse.
You have new weakness in your legs or weakness in your legs that is getting worse. (This could make it hard to stand up.)
You lose control of your bladder or bowels.
You have new or increased back pain
with fever, painful urination, or other
signs of a urinary tract infection.
You have long-term back pain that
suddenly gets much worse, and
you did not cause it by being more
You have a history of cancer or
HIV infection, and you have new or
increased back pain.
Your doctor will begin by asking questions about your medical history, your symptoms, and your work and physical activities. He or she will also do a physical exam. The questions and exam can help rule out a serious cause for your pain. Your doctor may also ask questions about stress at home and at work that may make you more susceptible to chronic pain.
If your back pain has lasted for less than 6 weeks, it may be best to wait to do any testing. This is because most back pain goes away on its own in a month or so.
But if you have a back pain problem that has lasted longer than 6 weeks, or if your doctor thinks you may have more than muscle pain, it might be time for a test.
"I thought, 'Okay, it will hurt for a day or two, and that's it.' But it lasted a lot longer. It took about 3 weeks. I guess we're used to fast cures. We take an aspirin, and the headache goes away. We take the antibiotic, and the infection disappears."
Almost everyone has low back pain at some time. The good news is that most low back pain will go away in a few days or weeks with some basic self-care.
This includes first aid, self-massage and using heat or ice.
Some people are afraid that doing too much may make their pain worse. In the past, people stayed in bed, thinking this would help their backs. Now experts think that, in most cases, getting back to your normal activities is good for your back, as long as you avoid things that make your pain worse.
For the first day or two of pain, take it easy. But as soon as possible, get back to your normal daily life and activities.
Movement helps your muscles stay strong. Lying down for too long can make your problem worse.
If you are an athlete, return to your activity carefully. Choose a low-impact option until your pain is under control.
Think about your posture, whether you are sitting or standing. Slumping or slouching alone may not cause low back pain. But after the back has been strained or injured, bad posture can make pain worse. "Good posture" generally means your ears, shoulders, and hips are in a straight line. If this posture causes pain, you may have another condition such as a problem with a disc or bones in your back.
Stretch and strengthen your back
When you no longer have acute pain, you may be ready for gentle strengthening exercises for your stomach, back, and legs, and perhaps for some stretching exercises. Exercise may not only help decrease low back pain but also may help you recover faster, prevent reinjury to your back, and reduce the risk of disability from back pain.
Walking is the simplest and perhaps the best exercise for
the low back. Your doctor or a physical therapist can recommend more specific
exercises to help your back muscles get stronger. These may include a series of
simple exercises called core stabilization. The muscles of your
trunk, or core, support your spine. Strengthening
these muscles can improve your posture, keep your body in better balance, and
decrease your chance of injury.
Stress and low back pain can create a vicious circle. You have back pain, and you begin to worry about it. This causes stress, and your back muscles begin to tense. Tense muscles make your back pain worse, and you worry more ... which makes your back worse ... and so on.
There are lots of ways to teach yourself to relax.
You may be tempted to do a diet overhaul and change everything about the way you eat. But you will be more successful at staying with the changes you make if you pick just one eating habit at a time to work on.
Get moving. Try to make physical activity a regular part of your day, just like brushing your teeth. Start small, and build up over time. Moderate activity is safe for most people, but it's always a good idea to talk to your doctor before you start an exercise program.
Change your thinking. Our thoughts have a lot to do with how we feel and what we do. If you can stop your brain from telling you discouraging things and have it start encouraging you instead, you may be surprised at how much healthier you'll be—in mind and body.
People who smoke take longer to heal—from any injury, not just back pain. If you stop smoking, you may feel better sooner.
People who smoke are also much more likely to have back pain than people who don't smoke. This is because the nicotine and other toxins from smoking can keep spinal discs from getting all the nutrients they need from the blood, making disc injury more likely. These discs cushion the bones in your spine. An injured disc can cause low back pain.
Smoking also increases your risk of bone loss (osteoporosis).
Medicine can decrease
low back pain and reduce muscle spasms in some people.
But medicine alone isn't an effective treatment for low back pain. It should
be used along with other treatments, such as walking and using heat or ice.
There are several medicines your doctor may recommend,
depending on how long you have had pain, what other symptoms you have, and your
Muscle relaxants. These medicines can help when
you get bad muscle spasms along with
low back pain. Side effects, such as drowsiness, are common.
Opiate pain relievers. These are very strong medicines that are sometimes tried to ease sudden, severe back pain that has not been controlled by other medicines. They are usually taken for only 1 to 2 weeks.
Antidepressants. Some of these medicines, such as amitriptyline and duloxetine, not only treat
depression but also may help with chronic pain.
Other medicines sometimes used for low back pain are:
Anesthetic or steroid injections. These have been
prescribed for chronic low back pain, but they have not been researched enough
to know if they work well for back pain. They may give short-term relief from leg pain related to a back problem.
Anticonvulsants. These are sometimes used to treat low back
pain, even though there isn't strong evidence that they help.
Botox injection. This is a shot into the back
muscles. It has not been well tested for chronic low back pain.
Medicines that work for some people don't work for others.
Let your doctor know if the medicine you are taking doesn't work for you. You may be able to take another medicine for your back pain.
When you're in a lot of pain, you might wonder if you need surgery to fix what's wrong so that you can feel better.
Every case is different. But most people don't need surgery for low back pain.
Most herniated discs heal—and pain eases—after a few weeks or months of treatment.
About half of people with herniated discs get better within a month without surgery.
After 6 months, most people with herniated discs have recovered. Only about 10 out of 100 end up having surgery.1
When surgery may help
Surgery might be an option when a disc problem causes pain in your leg that prevents you from doing everyday tasks. You may have pain, numbness, or tingling through your buttock and down the back of your leg (sciatica) or in the front of your thigh.
rehabilitation program is very important after most back surgery. As you regain
flexibility, recondition your back and stomach muscles, and increase your
endurance for activity, you increase your chances of treatment success.
If you are unable or unwilling to commit to physical therapy after
surgery, you may not be a good candidate for surgery.
Deciding whether to have surgery
If you and your doctor are considering surgery, get as
much information as you can about possible results, and consider whether you
will be willing to do physical therapy after surgery. It
is also a good idea to get a
second opinion before you decide to have
Yoga is another way to stay active
and get help with relaxation and managing stress. Small studies suggest that yoga classes may help people with chronic low back pain control their symptoms and stay more active.5, 6 It is not clear
whether yoga is more helpful than other activity or treatment for chronic low back
pain. There are different types of yoga. Talk to your
doctor before you start a yoga program.
Here are some other treatment choices to think about:
Back school teaches you all about back care, how to stand and sit, and how to move your body in a safer way.
Radiofrequency ablation of nerves. This may reduce chronic
low back pain in some people by preventing pain signals from reaching the
brain. It is sometimes used for pain from problems with the small joints in the
spine called facet joints.
An intrathecal pain pump. This is a small tube inserted under the
skin and deeper tissues along the midline of the back and into the spinal canal. The tube connects to a
small reservoir of medicine inserted under the skin of your belly. The medicine
is regularly delivered to the area of pain through the tube.
Coping With Chronic Back Pain
Low back pain can take a toll on your mental health.
You may feel fear, frustration, and anger or have depression and anxiety because of ongoing pain. Those common reactions can make your pain last even longer. If pain is starting to get you
Let people know when you need a helping hand.
Ask family members or friends to help out with physical tasks you can't do
Be honest with your doctor about your pain. Ask for a referral to a counselor or pain management specialist. A prescription antidepressant or
antianxiety medicine may also help with chronic pain.
Work with your health professionals and
your work supervisor to make a return-to-work plan, if needed. Ask for an ergonomic consultation if you need to learn how to do some of your job
duties differently to avoid hurting your back again.
One Man's Story:
"I started feeling sad and angry a lot. I didn't want to do anything. My back was hurting more. I was having trouble focusing on my work. My life just started feeling smaller and smaller."—Ravi
You may have to lean on friends and family when facing difficult situations caused by chronic pain or other problems. Your loved ones can play an important role in supporting your recovery. Your doctor and community also may give you extra support.
Asking for support from others is not always easy. It can be hard to tell someone about your problems. But don't be afraid to ask for help.
Where you can get support
Family. Family members can help you cope by giving you comfort and encouragement.
Friends. Building strong relationships with others is important for your emotional well-being. Helping is a big part of friendship. At times you may be the one who encourages a friend.
Your doctor. Find someone you trust and feel comfortable with. Be open and honest about your fears and concerns. Your doctor can help you get the right treatments, including treatment for depression or other problems.
Religious groups. Religious or spiritual groups may help you meet people and get involved in the community. Some religious organizations can help you get counseling or other social support services.
Social groups. Social groups can help you meet new people and get involved in activities you enjoy.
Community support groups. In a support group, you can talk to others who have dealt with the same problems or illness as you. You can encourage one another and learn ways of coping with tough emotions.
One Woman's Story:
"I really work at finding the good things in my day. It helps me get through the day, and I think it makes my pain not bother me as much."—Patty
The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS)
provides information and education to raise the public's awareness of
musculoskeletal conditions, with an emphasis on preventive measures. The AAOS
website contains information on orthopedic conditions and treatments, injury
prevention, and wellness and exercise.
National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and
Skin Diseases (NIAMS), National Institutes of Health
1 AMS Circle
Bethesda, MD 20892-3675
1-877-22-NIAMS (1-877-226-4267) toll-free
The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal
and Skin Diseases (NIAMS) is a governmental institute that serves the public
and health professionals by providing information, locating other information
sources, and participating in a national federal database of health
information. NIAMS supports research into the causes, treatment, and prevention
of arthritis and musculoskeletal and skin diseases and supports the training of
scientists to carry out this research.
The NIAMS website provides
health information referrals to the NIAMS Clearinghouse, which has information
packages about diseases.
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William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.