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Lower Back Pain: Causes, Relief and Treatment

Lower back pain, pain relief
Lower back pain is one of the most common complaints, and can be caused by everything from strained muscles to bulging discs.
Credit: Steven Frame | Shutterstock

Lower back pain, or pain anywhere between the ribs and the legs, is one of the most common complaints. It is the most common cause of job-related disability and a major reason for missed work. While most back twinges go away on their own after a few days, many people suffer from long-lasting or chronic back pain.

About eight out of 10 people experiences at least one bout of lower back pain, according to the Healthy People 2010 report. It's not surprising that the back can get out of whack so easily: It supports most of the body's weight. People who are between ages 30 to 50 tend to be likelier to suffer from back pain, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, possibly because they spend large amounts of their day sitting, with the occasional too-vigorous workout that can cause injury.

Causes of pain

Lower back pain has many causes. For some people, twisting or lifting a heavy load the wrong way can sprain or strain the muscles and ligaments in the back. In addition, the cushiony discs between the backbones, or vertebrae, tend to disintegrate with age, reducing how much shock absorption they can provide.

Sometimes, pressure on the nerves in the spinal column can cause them to fire and send a pain signal. Everything from herniated discs, to arthritis, to a narrowing of the spine known as spinal stenosis may be the culprit. Curvature of the spine known as scoliosis can also cause problems. [Infographic: Diagram of the Skeletal System]

Relief & treatment

Treating back pain is tricky. For minor aches and pains or twinges after an injury or strain, a day or two off your feet, some pain medicine, followed by resumption of normal activities, will do the trick.

People with really stubborn back pain, however, may want to talk to a doctor about physical therapy exercises that can strengthen muscles. A 2002 study in Spine found that back exercises could significantly reduce pain in patients who had pain due to an unspecified cause. A few studies have found that massage reduces back pain, and a 2013 study in the Clinical Journal of Pain found that cognitive behavioral therapy, which helped retrain people to deal with the pain, lead to fairly large improvements.

While surgery may be an option for some select patients, there aren't well-defined guidelines predicting who will benefit.  But for people who have degenerative disc disease, several well-controlled studies find that surgery has only modest benefits, and that those benefits may be no greater than rehabilitation and cognitive behavioral therapy, according to a 2009 study in the journal Spine.

Prevention

No one really knows a surefire way to prevent back pain, and many doctors recommend self-management, which means finding what works for you.

Some experts suggest keeping good posture while walking and sitting, as well as keeping weight in check. Other potential options are exercises that work core muscles, chairs with better ergonomics, or using better posture while lifting heavy loads. Almost all interventions to prevent low-back pain, however, have shown limited effect in clinical trials.

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Author Bio
Tia Ghose, LiveScience Staff Writer

Tia Ghose

Tia has interned at Science News, Wired.com, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and has written for the Center for Investigative Reporting, Scientific American, and ScienceNow. She has a master's degree in bioengineering from the University of Washington and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California Santa Cruz. To find out what her latest project is, you can follow Tia on .
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