What Causes Low Back Pain & Your Treatment Options
Low back pain is very common, and it might be surprising to know 80% of adults experience it at some point1. And it’s actually one of the top reasons why people visit a doctor or miss work.
Sometimes you might know exactly why your back hurts. It could be you lifted something heavy, moved something the wrong way, or stayed in the wrong position for too long. Other times, it can slowly develop over time as we age, and the cause or source can feel like a mystery.
It usually gets better on its own, but when it doesn’t it may be time to talk to your physician about what you can do. Fortunately, no matter the cause of your low back pain, there are many ways you can get relief.
When low back pain is normal vs. when it’s not normal
When we say low back pain, we’re talking about the area of your back that starts right below the ribcage. There are two distinct types of pain:
Acute pain is short-term and it usually lasts anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. Acute pain is considered normal and will resolve on its own with the right self-care. Sometimes it might take a few months for the symptoms to disappear. Examples of acute pain can be sprains, fractures, or strains.
Chronic pain lasts for more than 6 months, even after an initial cause has been identified and treated. This type of pain just doesn’t go away and makes it difficult or impossible to do everyday activities, sleep, walk, sit, or work.
Chronic pain can be experienced on different levels of severity from mild to severe. When your low back pain lasts longer than 6 months and gets in the way of everyday life, this is considered not normal and you might want to consider seeing a pain management physician to talk about what treatment options are available.
What causes low back pain?
Depending on if your low back pain is acute or chronic, potential causes could be:
Acute pain potential causes:
- Accidents and injuries from work or sports, car accidents, or falls
- Sprains, strains, or fractures
- Muscle spasms
- Other injuries to your tendons, ligaments, muscles, or spine
Chronic pain potential causes:
- Disk problems: disks can bulge from their position and press on a nerve (bulging disk). They can tear (herniated disk).
- Degenerative conditions: can occur with age and include conditions like disc degeneration and spondylosis
- Nerve and spinal cord issues: such as spinal nerve compression, sciatica, spinal stenosis, and spondylolisthesis
- Structural problems: something pinching the spinal cord can cause severe low back pain. Scoliosis can lead to pain, stiffness and difficulty moving.
Chronic low back pain is less likely to be caused by an injury and is more likely caused by issues with your nerves, lumbar disks, joints, or vertebrae.
How can you find out what type of pain you’re experiencing and the cause?
A complete evaluation with a doctor will help you know what the type is and the cause.
What are my treatment options?
If your pain is acute, it will usually improve on its own and is often treated with:
- Medications – like aspirin, ibuprofen, Tylenol or topical pain relief creams, gels, or patches
- Muscle relaxants
- Heat and/or ice
- Gentle stretching
While acute pain will often get better – chronic pain is more difficult to treat and is often treated with a carefully designed stepped care approach, moving from simple to more advanced approaches.
Treatment plans for chronic low back pain depend on what’s specifically causing the pain and can look something like this:
Step 1: Early treatments options
- Medications – like aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen, or prescribed NSAIDs
- Hot or cold packs
- Lifestyle changes
If you don’t get relief from these techniques, you might be recommended to consult a pain management specialist to try more advanced techniques.
Step 2: More advanced treatments options
- Massage therapy
- TENS unit
- Physical therapy programs
- Epidural injections
- Nerve Ablations
If these techniques don’t work, you might be recommended the following options for difficult to treat chronic pain.
Step 3: The most advanced treatment options
- Pain pumps
- Spinal cord stimulation
Spinal cord stimulation and lower back pain
Spinal cord stimulation could be a great option if have chronic nerve pain and you’ve tried treatment options in step 1, step 2, and surgery and still haven’t found relief.
How does spinal cord stimulation work?
Chronic nerve pain is caused by damaged nerves that are overproducing and sending pain signals through your spinal cord to your brain.
Spinal cord stimulation works by safely blocking and reducing pain signals.
Spinal cord stimulation is often an effective treatment option for severe, difficult-to-treat chronic low back nerve pain, especially pain after back surgery.
Newer and more advanced spinal cord stimulators, like HFXTM, have helped people with back pain get back to everyday life and 88% of people who use HFX are more independent2.
Learn more about who is a good candidate for spinal cord stimulation.
When to talk to a pain management specialist about your pain
You might be asking yourself “How long is too long?” to grin and bear your pain.
If your pain has impacted your quality of life for longer than 6 months and you’ve tried every option with your primary care provider without success, then it may be time to consult a pain management specialist.
Impacted quality of life can sound like:
- Your pain keeps you awake at night
- You’re missing work or can’t work like you used to
- Walking, standing, or sitting is difficult
- Your pain stops you from playing with your kids or grandkids
- Basic tasks around the house and running errands is difficult
- Your pain prevents you from pursuing your hobbies and doing what you love
Pain management specialists have extensive specialized training to tackle pain issues specifically and are the most qualified source of expertise to evaluate, diagnose, and treat chronic pain. A pain management specialist can provide a diagnosis and work with you to develop a detailed treatment plan specifically designed to alleviate your chronic low back pain.
If you don’t have a pain management specialist, you can find one in your area by using the physician finder.
- 80% of adults experience low back pain at some point in their lives1
- If your low back pain has impacted your quality of life for longer than 6 months and you’ve tried every option with your PCP, you should consider finding a pain management specialist
- A pain management specialist can work with you to develop a detailed treatment plan specifically designed to alleviate your chronic low back pain
- Spinal cord stimulation is a great option for chronic low back nerve pain if you’ve tried treatment options like physical therapy, injections, pain medications, surgery and still haven’t found relief
- Nevro patient satisfaction survey data. Data on file. Calculated 10/1/2020.
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