Lower back pain treatment, causes and symptoms

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Low back pain / Lower Back Pain

Low back pain is very common. It is estimated that 60% to 80% of the general population will experience an episode of low back pain in his or her lifetime. A variety of lifestyle factors can have a cumulative effect on the different sections of the spine. These factors can range from your profession, through to the mattress you sleep on every night. Unnecessary amounts of stress can be placed on your back by sitting still for long periods of time or performing heavy lifts in the gym. Low back pain is one of the top reasons why an individual may decide to come and visit an osteopath or physiotherapist.

What Makes Up the Low Back?

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The lumbar spine, or low back is made up of 5 spinal bones known as vertebrae, they are referred to as L1-L5. The low back supports much of the weight of the upper body and has a natural inward curve known as a lordosis.

The vertebrae in the low back are supported by a variety of different soft tissue structures including muscles, ligaments, intervertebral discs and nerves. The muscles in the low back aid in supporting the spine during twisting and bending motions as well as flexing and rotating the hip enabling you to walk. The ligaments in the spine create a strong supporting structure around the vertebrae and vertebral joints, to stabilize the spine during movements.The intervertebral discs in the low back provide a cushioning and act as a shock absorber for the low back. The nerves in the low back innovate the muscles and supply sensation to the pelvis, thigh, leg and feet.

Most low back pain has an acute onset and can last anywhere from a couple of days to a few weeks. Back pain that has lasted for around 6 weeks to 3 months is classed as subacute and back pain that has lasted for more than 3 months is classed as chronic back pain.

Most acute low back pain manifests due to an injury to the muscles, ligaments, disc or joints in the low back. With injury there can also be the presence of inflammation as this is a by-product of the body’s response to healing. Inflammation can cause severe pain.

What are the Common Types of Low Back Pain?

There are many different ways to categorize low back pain, as mentioned above, the time period of back pain is one way. Other ways of categorizing low back pain is by the type of pain an individual is experiencing:

Mechanical pain: this is the most common type of low back pain. Mechanical pain is pain that arises primarily as a result from injury to the muscles, ligaments, joints or bones within the lumbar spine. The presentation of this type of pain tends to be localised to the low back, buttocks and occasionally to the thighs. It is usually made worse by certain movements of the spine, including flexing forwards, twisting, going from sitting to standing, walking and lying down.

Radicular pain: this type of pain refers to pain caused by irritation of the nerve roots as they exit the lumbar vertebrae. This may be because the nerves have become trapped, impinged or inflamed. Radicular pain usually follows a certain pattern, this is known as a dermatome. Your physical therapist will be able to understand which nerve is irritated based on the location of the pain down in your lower extremity. Radicular pain usually feels very sharp and can create a burning sensation as well as pins and needles. It can also be associated with muscle weakness and a feeling of numbness in the buttock, thighs, legs or feet. This is normally only felt on one side of the body. However there are some conditions that can cause you to have these types of symptoms down both sides of your body.

Other categories for low back pain are:

Pain from inflammatory conditions: such as ankylosing spondylitis and rheumatoid arthritis. With these types of conditions pain is usually worse when at rest and is generally relieved by activity. It is a chronic type pain that is accompanied with morning stiffness lasting for more than one hour. It is normally relieved by non-steroidal inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen and naproxen.

Referred pain: this is when the pain originates from another part of the body. Common examples of referred pain in the low back are kidney stones, ulcerative colitis, cystitis or bladder infections, fibroids and pelvic inflammatory disease.

Common causes of Low Back Pain?

There are many different causes for low back pain. The most common causes are mechanical in nature, this means that there is a disruption to the normal functioning of the anatomical components of the low back. The list below includes some of the most common mechanical causes of low back pain as well as some non-mechanical causes.

Bones, Muscles and Joints

Muscle Strain – when a muscle is stretched beyond its normal limits. This can sometimes cause the muscle to tear, damaging the muscle. A muscle strain is usually a result of overuse, fatigue or improper use of a muscle. It can happen suddenly or it can develop slowly over time.

Ligament Sprain – ligaments are strong supportive tissues that are located around joints. They act as a supportive structure around a joint, that aid in improving stability of the joint. A sprain occurs when the ligament is overstretched. Sometimes tearing can occur, this is known as a ligament rupture.

Facet Joint Dysfunction – the spinal column is made up of 33 spinal vertebrae that are connected together by facet joints. The joints have cartilage between the bones and are supported by an abundance of ligaments, including a capsular ligament. Within the capsular ligament there is a fluid known as synovial fluid which aids in the smooth moving of the joint. The capsule, ligaments and joints are highly innervated. Through injury, trauma, poor posture and many other reasons these joints can be affected and cause pain, on their own or in conjunction with the intervertebral discs.

Spondylolithesis – when one of the vertebrae in the low back, moves out of its usual / normal position, usually slipping forwards. This causes instability within the spine. If the bone slips too much it may compress onto the surrounding nerves causing pain and neurological symptoms down the legs.

Sacroiliac Joint (SIJ) Dysfunction – the sacroiliac joint is located at the base of the spine, where the spine meets each side of the pelvis. It is a very strong joint that absorbs a lot of force created from the upper and lower body. The SIJ doesn’t have much range of motion and can become painful if there is too much motion or too little motion. It can also become painful if it becomes inflamed, this is known as sacroiliitis.

Changes Associated with Age

Spondylosis – is another term to describe osteoarthritis of the spine. It is the age related changes that occur to the spinal column, including the discs and facet joint. As these changes occur they can cause pain, inflammation and instability within the joint. In some cases it can cause a narrowing of the spinal canal (stenosis).

Degenerative Disc Disease – this is an age related condition in which one or more of the intervertebral discs within the spinal column lose their ability to act as a cushioning for the spine. As a consequence they become weaker and develop tears. In some cases it can also cause the spinal canal to narrow. This is referred to as stenosis

Osteoporosis – this is a condition in which there is weakening of the bones due to a reduction in bone density. There is greater prevalence in the elderly but can also be a result of some endocrine and metabolic diseases. Due to the reduction in bone density compression fractures are common which can sometimes cause pain. However, pain is more likely to be caused due to there being compression onto neurological structures as a result of the compression fracture.

Nerve and Spinal Cord Problems

Lumbar Herniated Disc – intervertebral discs act as a cushion, aiding (along with muscles & ligaments) in holding the spinal vertebrae together. The discs help prevent the vertebrae from rubbing together & consists of a gel filled inner layer surrounded by a hard fibrous outer layer. Sometimes a person can injure or strain their discs causing part of the gel filled nucleus to herniate out of the fibrous outer casing. This is known as a herniated disc, prolapsed disc or a slipped disc. When the disc herniation occurs in the low back it may compress onto the sciatic nerve causing symptoms into the buttock, thigh, leg and/ or foot.
Spinal Stenosis – this is a condition in which there is narrowing of the spinal canal. There are many different causes of spinal stenosis, such as injury, trauma and degenerative changes.

Less Common Causes of Low Back Pain

Infection – spinal infection is very rare, but can cause severe pain and can be lifethreathning if it is left untreated. Also known as osteomyelitis it can be caused by; bacteria in the bloodstream, infectious disease that spreads to the bone, infection from recent surgery or injection in or around a bone.

Tumors – Tumours in the spine are not very common, however if they do appear they usually start elsewhere in the body and metastasize to the spine. The most common tumours that metastasize to the spine start from cancers in the prostate, kidney, lung, breast and thyroid.

Autoimmune diseases – back pain is a common symptom in individuals suffering from autoimmune conditions such as ankylosing spondylitis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and crohn’s disease.

Diagnosis of Low Back Pain

In order for low back pain to be diagnosed, a visit to your GP (General practitioner) is not always necessary.  Some cause of low back back can also be diagnosed by physical therapists. Examples of physical therapists include osteopaths and physiotherapists. In order to ascertain the cause of the low back pain, a precise case history will be taken. Information regarding your current and previous symptoms will be required along with a thorough physical examination. This will allow the practitioner to make a more informative and accurate diagnosis.

Practitioners may ask you the following questions whilst taking the case history;

  • When was the onset of any pain or symptoms?
  • How long does this pain persist for?
  • What is the nature of this pain?
  • When the pain started to affect you, what were you doing?
  • Has the strength of your foot or leg reduced?
  • Do you have any history of injury to the hip or back areas?
  • Have you experienced any other symptoms?

During your physical assessment, it may be appropriate and beneficial for your practitioner to complete a series of tests including; orthopedic tests, reflex tests, postural assessment, nerve stretch tests and muscular strength tests.

Occasionally, further testing may be required, this may include:

X-ray imaging – this can show if there is any disruption to the normal alignment of the bones in the spine. It also shows fractures in the bones. This may be requested if there is a chance of spondylolisthesis, boney fracture or osteoarthritis in the spine.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) – this type of imaging is best at showing up any abnormalities within the soft tissues of the body. For example the muscles, ligaments, intervertebral discs, nerves and spinal cord. This type of test may be requested if a lumbar spine disc herniation is suspected.

Electromyography (EMG) – this test assesses the electrical activity in a muscle. It can detect whether or not the weakness in a muscle is a result of reduced or poor nerve conduction. This would suggest that there is a problem with the nerves. This type of test may be requested if somebody is experiencing weakness into their legs.

Bone scan – also known as a DEXA scan, this type of test can detect and monitor bone density. This type of test would be requested if osteoporosis was suspected.

Blood tests – this type of test is not routinely used to diagnose low back pain. However it might be requested to look for any signs of increased inflammation, infection or autoimmune diseases.

Low Back Pain Treatment Options

The length of treatment required and type of treatment needed depends on whats causing of the low back pain.

Non-invasive options include:

Visiting a physical therapist such as an osteopath or MSK physiotherapist can help with; relieving your pain and discomfort which may occur as a result of lower back pain. our practitioner may utilise a variety of techniques with the aim to:

  • Release and stretch your tight muscles to allow for improved function and movement.
  • Help improve circulation and blood flow. The body’s natural healing response will be improved as a result
  • Strengthen the deep spinal stabilising muscles through a comprehensive exercise to lower back pain programme.
  • Pain will be relieved through a release hormones known as endorphins.

Your osteopath or MSK physiotherapist will additionally provide you with advice in respect to pain management techniques. These pain management techniques may including the use of hot and cold therapy. Your practitioner will also discuss an appropriate plan for your return to activity.

In order to combat your low back pain, specific exercises may also be prescribed to you by your osteopath or MSK physiotherapist. These exercises will be prescribed with the goal of improving the strength and mobility of your lower back and core muscles. Improvements in posture can also be accomplished through specific exercises. The exercise programme will bespoke to you and to the underlying cause of your low back pain. This exercise plan will be controlled and progressive. In order to prevent the return of low back pain, it is important to adhere to this exercise plan.

Medication for low back pain: depending on the severity of your pain, you may decide to visit your GP. In order to relieve your symptoms, they may prescribe you with some oral medications.

  • Anti inflammatory medications are prescribed as they can help with the pain and inflammation experienced due to low back pain.
  • Over the counter painkillers are prescribed as they can help with the pain
  • Prescription muscle relaxant medication (diazepam) can be prescribed to help with muscle spasms.
  • Anticonvulsants or antidepressants can also help manage nerve pain.

Epidural Steroid Injections (ESI): This technique involves an injection of corticosteroid and a local anesthetic into a space around your spinal cord (epidural space). This technique reduces the inflammatory response within the tissues of the low back. The aim of ESI is to provide temporary relief from your low back pain.

Surgical Options:

Surgery may be considered for individuals who have not responded to other, no invasive forms of treatment. If necessary, organise a discussion with your spinal surgeon who can provide you with information regarding the range of surgical options that exist. The type of surgery selected would depend on a few different factors:

  • Cause of low back pain
  • Age of the patient
  • Mental health of the patient
  • Ability to function in everyday life

Below are a few different types of spinal surgery:

Discectomy: this is a surgery which involves the removal of damaged intervertebral disc/s that are compressing a nerve.

Laminectomy: this is a surgery in which involves the removal of the back part of one or more vertebrae in the lumbar spine (low back), known as the lamina. This will allow more space for the spinal nerves. As a result, the likelihood of the nerve being compressed is reduced.

Spinal Fusion: this is a surgery in which involves the joining of the affected bone in the spine to the bone below. This is done in order to strengthen and stabilise the spine.

Balloon Kyphoplasty: this is a surgery that is commonly used for vertebral compression fracture. It is a minimally invasive technique where a small incision is made and tiny balloons are inflated within the fractured vertebrae. The inflated balloon restores vertebral height, and the cavity is then filled with bone cement to maintain the vertebral height.

Prevention of Low Back Pain

Unfortunately, not all types of low back pain can be prevented. However there are a few ways to reduce your risk and protect your low back from any further injury.

  • Exercise: In order to improve stability to your spine, strength in your spinal and abdominal muscles in required. This can be attained through exercises such as Yoga and Pilates. Book in to one of our Pilates or Yoga discovery sessions today to find out how it can help you and your lower back pains.
  • Lifting techniques: Poor lifting technique can significantly increase the risk of injuring your back. To minimise the risk when lift, ensure you:
    1. Bend from your hips and knees as opposed to your back
    2. Squat down to the object you are picking up instead of bending down
    3. Engage your abdominal muscles when straightening your legs to lift the object up. This can be done by keeping the object close to your body
    4. When you are lifting the object, Avoid twisting or turning your back
    5. Never lift heavy objects above head height.
  • Posture: ensure that you have good posture when standing and sitting. Poor posture can lead to increased pressure of the joints, ligaments and muscles of the back.
  • Maintain a healthy weight –  increased pressure on the spine can occur due to excess abdominal weight . This may increase the likelihood of  spondylolisthesis or degenerative changes.
  • Supportive mattress – Having a mattress that supports your spinal alignment is important, too squishy and it may have no support, too firm and it may create too much support. Testing your mattresses can be very helpful. Most companies now allow you to test mattresses for 100 days. This is really helpful as it gives you a better understanding about if the mattress is going to be suitable and supportive for your low back pain. There is no one size fits all when it comes down to pillow and mattress advice.

Do I need to go to the GP or visit my local hospital?

The NHS website suggests if you are experiencing any of the following symptoms:

  • Neurological symptoms in both of your legs.
  • Weakness or numbness in both legs that is severe or getting worse.
  • Numbness around or under your genitals, or around your anus.
  • Difficulty noticing when you need to poo or cannot control when you poo – and this is not normal for you.
  • Difficulty when peeing, cannot pee or cannot control when you pee – and this is not normal for you.

It is worthwhile going to calling 101  or visiting your local GP to seek further medical advice on how to treat your symptoms as these could be symptoms of a more serious back problem.

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