Low Back Pain

What is low back pain?

Illustration of lumbar spine and pelvis

Low back pain can range from mild, dull, annoying pain, to persistent, severe, disabling pain in the lower back. Pain in the lower back can restrict mobility and interfere with normal functioning.

Low back pain is one of the most significant health problems. Consider these statistics from the National Institutes of Health (NIH):

  • Eight out of 10 percent of all people have back pain at some time in their life.
  • Back pain is a common cause of activity limitation in young adults.

What causes low back pain?

Even with today's technology, the exact cause of low back pain can be found in very few cases. In most cases, back pain may be a symptom of many different causes, including any/several of the following:

  • overuse, strenuous activity, or improper use (i.e., repetitive or heavy lifting, exposure to vibration for prolonged periods of time)
  • trauma/injury/fracture
  • degeneration of vertebrae (often caused by stresses on the muscles and ligaments that support the spine, or the effects of aging)
  • infection
  • abnormal growth (tumor)
  • obesity (often caused by increased weight on the spine and pressure on the discs)
  • poor muscle tone in the back
  • muscle tension or spasm
  • sprain or strain
  • ligament or muscle tears
  • joint problems (e.g., spinal stenosis)
  • smoking
  • protruding or herniated (slipped) disk
  • disease (e.g., osteoarthritis, spondylitis, compression fractures)

Can low back pain be prevented?

The following may help to prevent low back pain:

  • practicing correct lifting techniques
  • maintaining correct posture while sitting, standing, and sleeping
  • exercising regularly (with proper stretching before participation)
  • avoiding smoking
  • maintaining a healthy weight
  • reducing emotional stress which may cause muscle tension

How is low back pain diagnosed?

In addition to a complete medical history and physical examination, diagnostic procedures for low back pain may include the following. However, during many initial assessments and examinations, specialized tests are not necessary.

  • x-ray - a diagnostic test that uses invisible electromagnetic energy beams to produce images of internal tissues, bones, and organs onto film.
  • computed tomography scan (Also called a CT or CAT scan.) - a diagnostic imaging procedure that uses a combination of x-rays and computer technology to produce cross-sectional images (often called slices), both horizontally and vertically, of the body. A CT scan shows detailed images of any part of the body, including the bones, muscles, fat, and organs. CT scans are more detailed than general x-rays.
  • magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) - a diagnostic procedure that uses a combination of large magnets, radiofrequencies, and a computer to produce detailed images of organs and structures within the body.
  • radionuclide bone scan - a nuclear imaging technique that uses a very small amount of radioactive material, which is injected into the patient's bloodstream to be detected by a scanner. This test shows blood flow to the bone and cell activity within the bone.
  • electromyogram (EMG) - a test to evaluate nerve and muscle function.

Treatment for low back pain:

Specific treatment for low back pain will be determined by your physician based on:

  • your age, overall health, and medical history
  • extent of the condition
  • your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • expectations for the course of the condition
  • your opinion or preference

Treatment may include:

  • activity modification
  • medication
  • physical rehabilitation and/or therapy
  • occupational therapy
  • weight loss (if overweight)
  • no smoking
  • following a prevention program (as directed by your physician)
  • surgery
  • assistive devices (e.g., mechanical back supports)

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