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Low Back Symptoms Overview


What’s Causing My Back Pain?

Back pain can be caused by many structures of the spine including the muscles, ligaments, joints, discs, vertebra (bones) and nerves. The most common causes of back pain involve the muscles (back strain) and the ligaments (back sprain). In most instances, back pain as a result of sprain or strain will completely resolve within 4-6 weeks with some rest, ice/heat, gentle exercise/physical therapy and anti-inflammatory medication. Severe back pain and pain persisting for more than several months may be a result of damage to the deeper structures of the spine including the bones, discs, joints and nerves.

The most common cause of back pain is repetitive trauma over time. Poor posture and body mechanics with activities such as bending, lifting and twisting can lead to damage to the joints and discs of the spine. Sudden strenuous physical effort, car accidents, falls, and sports injuries are common causes of traumatic events that can lead to more serious and long lasting back problems. Other less common causes of back pain include tumor, infection and inflammatory conditions. Physical conditions that can predispose to back problems include obesity, weak abdominal/back muscles, poor nutrition, pregnancy, and smoking.  

How Do I Detect a Low Back Problem?

The most common symptom is low back pain. The pain may be felt as sharp, dull, stabbing, burning, aching, throbbing, or an intense pressure. The back pain worsens with prolonged sitting, standing, walking or change in position (going from sit to stand) and improved with rest or lying down.  Back pain from a disc or a joint can also involve the buttock, hip area and upper leg such as the thigh or hamstring. The most severe form of pain from the low back area is known as sciatica.  Sciatica is pinching or irritation of a nerve from either a herniated disc or an arthritic bone spur from the joint. The nerve pain will typically radiate from the low back area into the leg and can travel all the way down to the foot. A pinched nerve pain is often described as sharp, stabbing, numbing, electrical, pulsating, throbbing, or burning. A pinched nerve pain is the most common reason for consulting with a physician.

In addition to back and leg pain symptoms, a low back problem may result in leg weakness and numbness from nerve or spinal cord damage and lead to difficulty with walking and increase risk of falling. A serious injury to the spinal cord or nerves can also result in difficulty with voiding.      

When Should I Consult a Doctor For a Back Issue?

Most back problems are minor and short lived and resolve within several days. It is recommended to consult a physician if you experience the following:

  • severe back/leg pain for over 72 hours
  • moderate pain lasting more than 2 weeks that is not improving with rest, heat/ice, or over the counter medications such as Tylenol or aspirin products
  • development of leg weakness or numbness accompanying back and leg pain symptoms which can indicate more serious nerve or spinal cord damage
  • difficulty urinating may indicate a severe nerve or spinal cord injury and requires prompt attention
  • progressively worsening back or leg pain symptoms with a history of cancer may indicate that the cancer has traveled to the spine
  • severe back pain with fevers may indicate a bacterial infection that has migrated to the spine involving the disc and vertebra and possibly forming an abscess involving the spinal cord and nerves

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