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23rd November, 20206 min read

Lower back pain: All you need to know

Medical reviewer:Healthily's medical team
Last reviewed: 20/11/2020
Medically reviewed

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What is lower back pain?

Lower back pain, also known as lumbago, is a common condition that’s thought to affect 1 in 2 people aged 60 or over. It describes any type of pain that affects the lower part of the back and spine, which is called the lumbar or lumbosacral region.

Lower back pain isn’t usually caused by a serious problem, and it tends to get better with time.

But all lower back pain isn't the same. Many things can cause it, and some types need urgent medical attention.

You should see a doctor if you have low back pain and you:

  • can’t do your daily activities (including sleeping) because the pain is so bad or the pain hasn’t gotten better after 4 weeks
  • noticed the pain started after a serious accident
  • recently had a fall or an injury to your back
  • have numbness or weakness in your legs
  • have lost weight without meaning to
  • have chest pain, or the pain feels worse when you cough, sneeze or poo
  • feel unwell, have a fever or have a swelling in your back
  • have trouble controlling when you poo or pee
  • have had cancer or osteoporosis (weak bones) in the past
  • have diabetes or a medical condition that weakens your immune system
  • take steroid medication

What are the common causes of lower back pain?

Lower back pain is sometimes caused by a specific injury to the spine and the surrounding joints, muscles, ligaments and nerves.

A muscle strain, for example, is a well-recognised cause of back pain that triggers sudden pain after doing something physical like bending or heavy lifting.

Sometimes, however, lower back pain has no clear cause and is known as non-specific back pain.

Other causes of back pain

In some cases, a medical condition can cause lower back pain, for example:

A slipped disc and sciatica affect the nerves around the spine and can therefore cause other symptoms, like numbness, weakness or a tingling sensation.

You should see a doctor immediately if you develop these symptoms.

What are the symptoms of lower back pain?

If you have low back pain, you may feel an ache in your lower back that may also affect your thighs. Sometimes the pain may feel worse at night, if you’ve been sitting still for a while or when you move in a certain way.

When to seek help

Low back pain can feel very painful, but this alone isn’t a sign that something serious has happened to your back.

Severe back pain usually goes away on its own within a few weeks. But in some cases, back pain is a sign of something serious that needs urgent medical attention.

See a doctor or go to hospital immediately if you have back pain and:

  • can’t do your daily activities (including sleeping) because the pain is so bad or the pain hasn’t gotten better after 4 weeks
  • noticed the pain started after a serious accident
  • recently had a fall or an injury to your back
  • have numbness or weakness in your legs
  • have lost weight without meaning to
  • have chest pain, or the pain feels worse when you cough, sneeze or poo
  • feel unwell, have a fever or have a swelling in your back
  • have trouble controlling when you poo or pee
  • have had cancer or osteoporosis (weak bones) in the past
  • have diabetes or a medical condition that weakens your immune system
  • take steroid medication

How is lower back pain diagnosed?

If you see a doctor about low back pain, they’ll usually examine your back and ask you questions to work out the cause.

They may ask you about your symptoms, what the pain feels like, how long you’ve had it, and if it started after an injury (for example, playing sport or lifting something heavy).

Because most cases of low back pain aren’t serious and get better on their own, you usually won’t need an imaging test, like an X-ray, MRI or CT scan.

But if you have other symptoms, you may be given other tests, including:

  • blood tests
  • an X-ray
  • an MRI scan

What can I do to relieve my lower back pain?

There's a lot you can do help relieve lower back pain and speed up your recovery, including:

  • staying as active as you can
  • applying ice and heat packs to your back
  • gently stretching

It may also help to take painkillers. Many different types of painkillers exist, and some are better for low back pain than others. Speak to your pharmacist or doctor for advice on the best painkillers for your symptoms, and how to safely use them.

You should also see a doctor if your symptoms don’t improve after trying the strategies mentioned above.

How long will it take me to get back to normal?

For most people, back pain improves with time, and you’ll often be able to return to your usual activities within a few weeks or months.

But if you're worried, have any of the warning signs listed above or the pain doesn't start to get better within 4 weeks, see a doctor. They can check how you’re improving, whether you need further investigations or let you know when it's safe to go back to work or play sports.

Unless you have a very physical job (for example, something that involves heavy lifting), there's no need to stay off work until your back pain is completely gone.

Try to go back to work as soon as you can. Doing so will help you get back into your daily routine and may help keep your mind off the pain.

How can I prevent lower back pain?

While it’s not always clear what causes lower back pain, there are a few things you can do to help reduce your risk of developing it. These include:

Key points

  • non-specific back pain, where the cause is unknown, is the most common type of lower back pain
  • lower back pain is often not serious and usually gets better within a couple of days or weeks
  • you can often treat your pain with stretching exercises, ice and heat packs, and a simple painkiller
  • if you're not getting better after a few weeks, check with a doctor

References

  1. Back pain [Internet]. nhs.uk. 2020 [cited 20 November 2020]. Available here.
  2. Low Back Pain - Bone, Joint, and Muscle Disorders - MSD Manual Consumer Version [Internet]. MSD Manual Consumer Version. 2020 [cited 20 November 2020]. Available here.
  3. Back pain treatments and causes | Health Information | Bupa UK [Internet]. Bupa.co.uk. 2020 [cited 20 November 2020]. Available here.
  4. UpToDate [Internet]. Uptodate.com. 2020 [cited 20 November 2020]. Available here.
  5. Low Back Pain Symptoms, Locations, Treatments & Causes [Internet]. eMedicineHealth. 2020 [cited 20 November 2020]. Available here.
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