Acute Low Back Pain
Acute low back pain means you have sudden or short-term pain or discomfort anywhere in the lower part of your back. This pain can be mild or severe and debilitating. Acute low back pain can last a couple of days or may continue for a couple of weeks. Most people are pain-free by six weeks. Pain for longer than this is considered chronic low back pain.
Acute low back pain is a common condition because the muscles of this area are our primary stabilizers and support much of our body weight. Other names for this condition include backache and lumbar pain. Acute low back pain is one of the more common reasons people see a doctor. According to a study reported in American Family Physician, 5.6 percent of adults in the United States experience low back pain each day. (Kinkade, 2007)
The term low back pain refers to the following:
- limited range of motion
- difficulty standing or sitting
Common Causes of Acute Low Back Pain
There are many events that could lead to acute low back pain. Most often, acute low back pain is caused by an injury to the muscles or connective tissues of the low back. This could be a strain, sprain, spasm, partial tear, or complete tear.
Other causes of acute low back pain include:
- lifting heavy objects
- sudden movements
- sitting or standing in one position for a period of time
- injury or trauma to the back
- menstrual cramps
Less common causes of acute low back pain include:
- complications in the uterus, such as cysts or cancer
- osteoporosis, when your bones become less dense and brittle, usually due to age
- arthritis (joint inflammation)
- compression fractures, when the bones of your spine (vertebrae) break, usually due to osteoporosis
- severe spinal cord fracture (such as from a car accident or fall)
- scoliosis (curvature of the spine)
- spinal cord cancer
- ruptured disk, when one of the disks that separates the bones of your spine breaks open
- sciatica, which is pain that occurs when there is a problem with your sciatic nerve, which runs down each leg from the lower back
- narrowing of the spinal cord (spinal stenosis)
- infection of the spinal cord or kidneys
- complications from pregnancy
When to Seek Treatment for Acute Low Back Pain
Many cases of acute low back pain result from minor injury to the low back. In these cases, the pain should go away on its own or with minor at-home treatments. You should see your doctor if you have any of the following:
- pain that persists for more than two weeks
- pain not caused by injury
- suffered a severe injury or accident involving the low back
- redness or swelling around the spine
- pain that spreads down your legs
- severe pain that disrupts your daily life and inhibits sleeping
- weakness or numbness in muscles around the lower back (buttocks, legs, or pelvis)
- urinary problems such as painful urination or blood in the urine
- incontinence (loss of control over the bladder or bowel movements)
- a history of cancer
Treating Acute Low Back Pain
You can treat acute low back pain caused by strain or injury at home. Follow these suggestions at the first sign of pain to help treat it properly:
- Refrain from physical activity for a couple of days.
- Maintain physical activity after the first few days (refrain from heaving, lifting, and twisting).
- Ice the painful area for the first 72 hours after onset of symptoms.
- Apply heat to that area after the first 72 hours or after inflammation subsides.
- See a chiropractor, acupuncturist, or massage therapist to help with pain.
If your pain has not subsided after one month, your doctor may suggest testing to check for spine or nerve issues. The doctor may also prescribe medication such as prescription-strength pain relievers or muscle relaxants and/or suggest physical therapy.
Preventing Acute Low Back Pain
Once the pain has subsided, you may want to consider making changes to your lifestyle and incorporating activities to help prevent future acute low back pain. Suggestions include:
- Stretch your muscles regularly. Strengthen the affected muscles. A physical therapist or yoga therapist can assist with developing treatment plans to do at home.
- Use proper lifting techniques when lifting heavy items.
- Avoid standing for long periods.
- Wear appropriate footwear.
- Lose weight if necessary.
- Use lumbar support when sitting or driving for long periods.
- Learn to manage stress. (Yoga, meditation, and tai chi are all great options.)