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A Pain In The Lower Back

Posted Oct 04 2011 11:40pm

A couple of months ago I was at a concert with my older brother.  It was standing room only and after about an hour, my lower back started to seethe with pain.  By the end of the night it was burning so badly I could feel it radiate through the rest of my body.  I was practically in tears from the pain!  It took me several days of gentle stretching and rest to recover.  I was left thinking: “I’m only 26 years old… why does my lower back hurt like I’m 70?”

When my brother noticed I was in pain, he asked what was wrong.  When I told him, he responded with: “Oh yeah, I get that all the time.”  In the ensuing days, any friend I talked to about my back would say the same thing as my brother.  Even as I was leaving the concert, I noticed a plethora of young folks clutching their lower backs and complaining about pain.

Why, America, are so many young people experiencing chronic lower back pain?

Well, first let’s learn some fun facts:

  • 70-85% of all people suffer from lower back pain at some point in their life.
  • Lower back pain is the 5th most common reason for visits to the doctor in the U.S.
  • It is the most frequent cause of activity limitation in people under the age of 45.
  • 1/2 of all working Americans admit to experiencing back pain symptoms each year.
  • Most cases of back pain are not caused by serious conditions like inflammatory arthritis, infection, fracture, or cancer.

So… if most people suffer from lower back pain, and most of those people are young working folks, and most cases of lower back pain are not caused from serious conditions… then that leads me to one conclusion.  And that is that the bulk of lower back pain comes from sitting too much or leading a generally sedentary lifestyle.  I know you’re thinking, “How did you come to that conclusion?”  Well, there’s actually a logical explanation for that…

What causes lower back pain?

Physically, sitting is the most damaging position for your spinal column.  You see, your weight is distributed evenly throughout your body when you’re standing or lying down.  But when you sit, your core relaxes and all the weight shifts to your vertebral discs.

However, it’s generally not your vertebrae that cause you pain.  Yes, they crunch together and sitting for long periods of time can cause long term damage (e.g. slipped discs and pinched nerves).  But what causes the pain that most people suffer from are the lax muscles around your relaxed core.  Even those who work out regularly may still suffer from lower back pain if they sit too much.

Here is a breakdown of what your “core” muscles consist of (click to enlarge images):

Abdominal Muscles

Lower Back Muscles

Glute Muscles

Hamstring Muscles

(Don’t worry, I will go more in depth with each muscle at a later date!)

When these muscles are loose and weak, they are less effective in supporting the spine.  Muscles that are taught hold tightly around the spine to keep it in place.  But lax muscles struggle to remain active and supportive, eventually exhausting themselves into spasms.  This is where the pain comes from.

That’s not to say that all lower back pain comes from sitting too much.  For instance, my lower back pain comes from a combination of sitting (blogging will do that to you) and spinal deviations (I have lumbar lordosis and a touch of scoliosis, amongst many others things).  Other causes can be injury or overuse, herniated discs, osteoarthritis, spondylolysis (vertebra defect), spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal canal), and fractures.  Then, of course, there are some rare causes of lower back pain like bacterial infections and tumors.

So how do I treat lower back pain?

If you suffer from chronic lower back pain (especially if you’ve had it for more than 3 months), it’s best to consult a doctor to ensure you don’t have a more serious condition like a herniated disc or fracture.  From there, the doctor can recommend therapy or (worst case scenario) surgery.

Chances are slim, however, that you will need this kind of extensive treatment.  Most people suffer from lower back pain due to under-use, so generally treatment can be done at home on your own.  Here are a few things you can do to get rid of that pain:

  1. For a day or two, take it easy!  Lie in comfortable positions, like on your side with a pillow between your knees or on your back with a pillow under your knees.  Don’t stay in the same position for too long and make sure to get up and take a 10-20 minute walk every few hours.
  2. Take a pain reliever, preferably one that is anti-inflammatory.  Medicines like Tylenol, Advil, Motrin, or a generic ibuprofen will definitely do the job.  Taking an anti-inflammatory pain killer can help reduce any swelling and, of course, help to ease the pain.
  3. Ice or heat your lower back for 15-20 minutes every few hours.  A lot of people ask whether it is better to ice or heat and the answer is: it doesn’t matter.  The point of ice or heat is to get the blood circulating in that area.  And more blood means more healing nutrients.
  4. Try going back to your normal activities as soon as possible.  Laying around too much will actually make matters worse and cause even greater back pain.  Movement makes your muscles stronger and stronger muscles have less chance of injury.

When you’re ready to be active again, start by doing some gentle exercises.  When I hurt my lower back, I did some easy yoga exercises.  Positions like the cat-cow pose and downward dog are great ways to stretch your back.  It’s also a good idea to do hip flexor stretches , which will help loosen up your hips after all those hours of sitting.  Yoga is also a wonderful practice in proper posture and the art of breathing (more oxygen in your blood means more healing power!).

Walking is another fantastic form of exercise for lower back pain sufferers.  It’s gentle, plus it gets your blood flowing and your muscles working.  Stronger muscles, as I said before, are less prone to injury.  Stronger muscles are also more supportive and can prevent all sorts of other injuries and additional pain.

And if you want to live a back pain free life, keep exercising on a regular basis.  Doing core stabilizing exercises will help strengthen the area around the lower back.  Crunches , oblique twists , side bends , the Superman , lat pulldowns , and deadlifts are just a few basic exercises you can do.

Also make sure that you are practicing better posture.  The number one thing you can do for yourself on a regular basis is stand more.  Those who have desk jobs, blog a lot, play too many video games, or watch too much T.V. really need to focus on getting off their butts.  Every hour or two, just stand up and walk around or do a few stretches.  All it takes is 10 minutes.  If you work at an office, see if you can convince your boss to invest in ergonomic desks that require you to stand.  If that doesn’t work, take advantage of other opportunities to stand up… like when you’re talking on the phone or chatting with a coworker.  Those that take the subway can quit fighting for a seat and stand instead!

And, as I talked about in my vacation post, don’t forget to relax!  Stress and tension can cause all sorts of problems with your body, and your lower back is certainly not exempt.  Taking time out for a little relaxation can work wonders in relieving an aching back.

Well, I know this post has been a long time coming, and I hope I’ve answered all your questions about lower back pain.  If not, feel free to comment below or even send me an e-mail!!


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