How to handle low back pain

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Back pain is one of the most common reasons people seek medical care.

The pain can be caused by a variety of things – from lifting something too heavy, falls, sports injuries or aging.

Back pain will often resolve on its own within days or weeks. Most back pain is acute, or short-term. Depending on the cause, it can also be chronic or require medical attention.

What causes back pain?

  • Overdoing it. A common cause of low back pain is muscle soreness from overactivity. Muscles and ligament fibers can be overstretched or injured. This is often brought about by that first softball game or round of golf of the season, or too much yard work or snow shoveling in one day.
  • Injury to a disk. When back pain doesn’t go away within a few days or a few weeks, it may mean there is an injury to a disk – a flexible, half-inch thick cushion found between the vertebrae of the spine.
  • Degenerative spondylolisthesis. Aging and general wear and tear can cause changes that make it more difficult for joints and ligaments to keep the spine in the proper position. If the vertebrae move more than they should, one vertebra can slide forward on top of another. If too much slippage occurs, the bones may begin to press on the spinal nerves.
  • Spinal stenosis. Spinal stenosis happens when the space around the spinal cord narrows and puts pressure on the cord and spinal nerves.
  • Scoliosis. This is an abnormal curve of the spine that can develop in children, most often during their teenage years. It also may develop in older patients who have arthritis. This curve can cause back pain if pressure on the nerves is involved.
  • Vertebral compression fractures, where the vertebrae in the spine collapse, can happen when someone with severe osteoporosis falls or does something as simple as forcefully sneeze or attempt to lift something. In younger people, compression fractures happen mainly from severe trauma, such as in an auto accident, sports injury, or a hard fall.

When should someone see a doctor for back pain?

Besides situations that obviously require immediate medical attention, such as a compression fracture, it can be hard to know when to see a doctor for back pain. Most short-term back pain caused by overuse can be treated at home with acetaminophen, aspirin or ibuprofen, along with gentle movement. Certain exercises and stretches, heat or cold packs can also help.

In general, people should see a doctor when low back pain does not subside on its own within several weeks.

Are there ways to prevent back pain?

Maintaining strength, flexibility and a healthy weight go a long way toward preventing back pain.

Posture is also important, including good posture while lifting. When lifting a heavy object, people should lift with legs and abdominal muscles, not back muscles.

630 Naperville welcomed guest Dr. Jimmy Zhu, an orthopedic spine surgeon with Edward-Elmhurst Medical Group.