Low back pain is a universal human experience -- almost everyone has it at some point. The lower back, which starts below the ribcage, is called the lumbar region. Pain here can be intense and is one of the top causes of missed work. Fortunately, low back pain often gets better on its own. When it doesn't, there are effective treatments.
Symptoms range from a dull ache to a stabbing or shooting sensation. The pain may make it hard to move or stand up straight. Acute back pain comes on suddenly, often after an injury from sports or heavy lifting. Pain that lasts more than three months is considered chronic. If your pain is not better within 72 hours, you should consult a doctor.
The kind of back pain that follows heavy lifting or exercising too hard is often caused by muscle strain. But sometimes back pain can be related to a disc that bulges or ruptures. If a bulging or ruptured disc presses on the sciatic nerve, pain may run from the buttock down one leg. This is called sciatica.
Although you may wear your purse, backpack, or briefcase over your shoulder, it is the lower back that supports the upper body -- including any additional weight you carry. So an overstuffed bag can strain the lower back, especially if you carry it day after day. If you must tote a heavy load, consider switching to a wheeled briefcase.
The Bed Rest Debate
When your back hurts, you may not feel like getting out of bed. But if the problem is muscle strain, doctors recommend returning to your normal activities as soon as possible. Studies suggest that any more than a day or two of bed rest can actually make the pain worse and may reduce muscle tone and flexibility.
A study funded by the government suggests that massage may help relieve chronic low back pain. After 10 weeks, people who had weekly massages had less pain and were better able to go about their daily activities than people who got traditional care. That was true no matter what type of massage they got, and the benefits lasted at least six months.
Can acupuncture treat back pain? The evidence is mixed. In 2009, a study of several hundred people with long-lasting back pain found surprising results. Those who had simulated acupuncture (involving toothpicks tapping the skin) got the same benefits as those who had real acupuncture with needles. After eight weeks, both groups had greater relief than people who did not have acupuncture.
If long-lasting back pain is interfering with your daily life, and other treatments have not provided relief, you may be a candidate for surgery. Depending on the cause of your pain, a surgeon may remove a herniated disc, widen the space around the spinal cord, and/or fuse two spinal vertebrae together.
If back pain has left you inactive for a long time, a rehabilitation program can help you strengthen your muscles and get back to your daily activities. A physical therapist can guide you through stretches, strength exercises, and low-impact cardio that will help you be fitter without straining your back.
Two types of strength-training moves that may benefit the lower back are flexion and extension exercises. In flexion exercises, you bend forward to stretch the muscles of the back and hips. In extension exercises, you bend backward to develop the muscles that support the spine. One example is doing leg lifts while lying on your stomach. Depending on the cause of your back pain, there are some exercises you should not do. If you have back pain, make sure to talk to your doctor about what exercises are safe for you.