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Lower back pain: causes, treatment and prevention

Updated: December 2018

We call it the “disease of the century” because if the studies are to be believed, no less than 80 % of the French population will suffer from back pain at some point in their lives. The term “back pain” covers a number of problems such as lumbago, chronic lower back pain, sciatica, and slipped discs, which all have one thing in common — the pain is located in the spine. Back pain can be classified into three groups. If the pain is located at the top of the back or in the neck bones (cervical spine), it is known in medical terms as cervicalgia. If the pain is located in the middle of the back around the thoracic vertebrae, it is referred to as thoracic or middle back pain. Finally, if the pain is located in the lower back, around the lumbar vertebrae, it is called lumbar or lower back pain.

Symptoms of lower back pain

Lumbar, or lower back pain, which is the specific focus of this article, is pain felt in the lower part of the back around the lumbar vertebrae. It is most commonly caused by sudden or prolonged movements, or by staying in the same position for too long. It is the most common type of back pain. Lumbar back pain can manifest itself in various ways:

  • A severe pain in the lower back, accompanied by a sudden and intense contraction of the muscles (this often occurs after a pull or strain injury, or some heavy lifting)
  • Pain that travels down the length of one or both legs (this can be a sign of a slipped disc and/or sciatica)
  • Inflammatory pain in the lower back that worsens at night time (potentially a sign of inflammation or a tumour)
  • A mechanical pain, which comes on when a joint is used, usually during the day

Causes of lower back pain

Lower back pain can be divided into two types: non-specific lower back pain, which is not related to any specific condition and is not medically serious, and symptomatic lower back pain.

Non-specific lower back pain is further defined by its duration: this could be acute if it lasts less than 7 days (as with lumbago, for example), chronic if it lasts for more than 3 months, and recurrent if it comes in repeated acute episodes. The treatment for the pain depends on which type of lower back pain it is. Symptomatic lower back pain is caused by an underlying problem such as an infection, malformation, tumour or fracture. Treating the underlying condition will therefore relieve the back pain.

In most cases, lower back pain is benign. Its origin cannot be determined exactly, and the pain will disappear within a few weeks. In other cases, it can be caused by an injury to a muscle or tendon, age-related disc degeneration, a slipped disc, a gynaecological problem, a displaced vertebra, or a condition such as inflammatory arthritis, osteoarthritis or osteoporosis.

Sometimes, lower back pain can be caused by a serious condition or injury (i.e. fractured vertebra, infection or cancer). If pain resulting from a fall or impact becomes constant, worsens at night time, starts to radiate down your legs, causes numbness or pins and needles, or is accompanied by pain in other parts of the body, it’s best to talk to a doctor as soon as possible.

Treating lower back pain: treatments and prevention

Treating lower back pain

Most of the time, a short period of strict bed rest (maximum 48 hrs) will be prescribed, alongside pain killers or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Your doctor may recommend a course of rehabilitation and physiotherapy, and they may also advise you to wear a back support belt. If you have chronic pain, you may be prescribed cortisone injections in the painful area. In some more serious cases, epidural corticosteroid injections may be recommended along with a course of spinal manipulation therapy. Sometimes surgery is necessary, especially for cases of sciatica that do not respond to other forms of medical treatment.

Certain positions may help to relieve lower back pain — you could sleep on your side with your knees bent, with one pillow under your head and another between your knees. You could also try sleeping on your back, placing a pillow under the small of your back instead of under your head. Similarly, since heat has pain-relieving effects, you could hold a hot water bottle to your lower back.

Drug-free, clinically validated pain reliever: TENS technology

There are also other solutions that help reduce lower back pain, drug-free. This is where OMRON’s range of pain relievers come in - using Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) to help you to relieve your muscle and joint pain. The OMRON HeatTens can even offer a combination of heat and TENS treatment in one single unit.

See all TENS machines

Preventing lower back pain

If the back pain is benign, you can make some simple changes to prevent and relieve lower back pain.

A healthy lifestyle is the first step in preventing lower back pain. Avoid becoming overweight, sleep flat on a firm mattress, do not wear heels that are too high or too low, exercise regularly (after warming up) and choose sports that help to strengthen your back and abdominal muscles. Certain sports are especially good for this, such as swimming (but avoid breaststroke).

Similarly, keeping good posture in everyday life is important to prevent back pain. If you ever need to lift a heavy object, bend your knees and keep your back straight. At work, make sure that you sit with your back completely straight and remember to get up and move at regular intervals.


References:

Corinou, M. (2013). Back pain: where does it come from? Retrieved from www.passeportsante.net/fr/Maux/Problemes/Fiche.aspx?doc=mal-de-dos

Balagué, F. & Genevay, S. (2013). My back hurts / I have sciatica. Retrieved from www.planetesante.ch/Symptomes/J-ai-mal-au-dos-j-ai-une-sciatique

Catalan-Massé, S. (2018). Back pain: what self-medication to relieve it? Retrieved from www.doctissimo.fr/html/sante/mag_2000/mag1006/dossier/sa_2570_chacun_traitement.htm