What causes low back pain, and when is it time to see a doctor?

Photo by Paul Bradbury/OJO Images/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

FEATURE — A staggering 80% of adults will experience low back pain at some point in their lives. While the severity of back pain varies widely, according to the National Institute of Health, it is the top contributor to missed work days.

Back pain does not discriminate by gender either, affecting both males and females equally. While most low back pain is acute – which is pain lasting less than 12 weeks – low back pain can become persistent and long lasting.

So why is low back pain so common? In order to understand this, it is essential to know some of the structures that make up the lower back. These structures include five bones known as lumbar vertebral bodies as well as a larger bone known as the sacrum. The vertebral bodies wrap around and protect the spinal cord and nerves.

Between each of these bones are soft, fibrous structures known as disks. The disks act as shock absorbents and help the back with bending and twisting. Muscles attach to the bones, produce movement and help with stabilizing posture. 

The back is made up of so many essential working parts that it is easily susceptible to injury. For example, the vertebral bones can develop arthritis, fracture or slip on top of each other. They are also a common location for metastatic cancer to spread.

All of these can result in pain. Disks can tear, rupture, bulge or weaken. When this occurs, it can “pinch” nerves, limit motio and cause severe pain. Muscles can also cause pain if strained, pulled, torn or overworked.

These are just some of the many different ways in which the spine can be injured or cause pain. So who is at risk for low back pain? While anyone is susceptible, we do know there are certain risk factors that predispose individuals to low back pain. These include advancing age, decreased fitness level, weight gain, genetics, pregnancy and even certain occupations.

Low back pain, especially acute low back pain, often can be treated with conservative management, which includes medications, physical therapy, spinal manipulations, massage or acupuncture. 

When should you see a doctor for low back pain? Some red flags include: 

  • Back pain due to a recent injury.
  • Back pain associated with fever or chills.
  • Weight loss that is unexplained.
  • Weakness or numbness.
  • Current or recent diagnosis of cancer.
  • Loss of bowel or bladder control.
  • History of osteoporosis.
  • Back pain that limits your daily activities.
  • Back pain that lasts for longer than a month.

Your doctor may recommend further diagnostic tests, such as lab tests, X-ray imaging, a CT scan or an MRI. In more serious cases, surgery may be indicated. Regardless, there have never been more options to help control or treat your back pain.

Written by DR. RODNEY SMITH, Southwest Spine and Pain.

This article was first published in St. George Health and Wellness magazine.

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Twitter: @STGnews

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