Lower Back Pain

If you have lower back pain, you are not alone. At UAMS, our experts are here to help restore your function and mobility.

About 80% of adults experience low back pain at some point in their life. Men and women are equally affected by low back pain, which can range in intensity from a dull, constant ache to a sudden, sharp sensation that leaves the person incapacitated.

Pain can begin abruptly as a result of an accident or by lifting something heavy, or it can develop over time due to age-related changes of the spine. Sedentary lifestyles also can set the stage for low back pain, especially when a weekday routine of getting too little exercise is punctuated by the strenuous workout of the weekend warrior.

Most low back pain is short-term or acute and will go away in a few weeks. It tends to resolve on its own with self-care and there is no residual loss of function. The majority of acute low back pain is mechanical in nature, meaning that there is no disruption in the way the components of the back (the spine, muscle, intervertebral discs, and nerves) fit together and move.

Chronic back pain is defined as pain that persists for 12 weeks or longer, even after an initial injury or underlying cause of acute low back pain has been treated. About 20 percent of people affected by acute low back pain develop chronic low back pain with persistent symptoms at one year. In some cases, treatment successfully relieves chronic low back pain, but in other cases pain persists despite medical and surgical treatment.

What causes low back pain?
The vast majority of low back pain is associated with spondylosis, a term that refers to the general degeneration of the spine associated with normal wear and tear that occurs in the joints, discs and bones of the spine as people get older. Some causes of low back pain include:

How is low back pain diagnosed?
Your doctor will ask questions about your past health, symptoms, and activities. He or she will also do a physical exam. Your answers and the exam can help rule out a serious cause for the pain and give them an understanding of the evolution of the pain. In most cases, doctors are able to recommend treatment after the first exam.

How is back pain treated?
Treatment for lower back pain depends upon the patient’s history and the type and severity of pain. The majority of lower back pain cases get better within six weeks without surgery, and lower back pain exercises are almost always part of a treatment plan. Typical treatment plans include:

  • Rest. Ceasing activity for a few days allows injured tissue and even nerve roots to begin to heal, which in turn will help relieve lower back pain. Heat and Ice Packs help relieve most types of low back pain by reducing inflammation. Often patients use ice, but some prefer heat. Both may be used alternately.
  • Medications. A wide variety of over-the-counter and prescription medications is available to help reduce symptoms of lower back pain. Many medications reduce inflammation, which is often a cause of pain, while others work to inhibit the transmission of pain signals from reaching the brain.
  • Exercise for Lower Back Pain. Exercise is a key element of almost any lower back pain treatment plan. Whether completed at home, or with a spine health professional, such as a physical therapist, chiropractor, or physiatrist, a plan will typically include three components: aerobic conditioning, stretching, and strengthening. The exercises are best done through a controlled, progressive program, with the goal of building toward a stronger, more flexible spine. Patients who do not regularly exercise to build strength and flexibility are more likely to experience recurrent or prolonged lower back pain.

If pain persists or worsens, more involved diagnostic tests and surgical procedures may be recommended. Learn more about treatments for back pain at the UAMS Neurosurgery Clinic.