Lower back pain can range from mildly uncomfortable to completely debilitating and is something that most adults will experience at least once in their lives. This short article is not meant to be a definitive guide top back pain and nor is it meant to replace advice from a trained medical professional but will hopefully teach you about some of the more common causes of back pain and what to do to avoid this all too common problem.
Causes of lower back pain
Your spine is made of from 33 individual bones called vertebrae which are separated by tough pads of cartilage called intervertebral disks. Each vertebra is connected to the next by ligaments and the movements of your spine are controlled by many different muscles, some big and some small.
Structurally, your spine is very complex and while it is very strong – it can support literally hundreds of pounds in weight – it is also easily injured.
A muscle pull, while painful, is nothing too much to worry about and will heal relatively quickly. In contrast, an injured ligament is much slower to heal as ligaments have a very poor blood supply.
The intervertebral disks, while tough and strong, can also be injured. If loaded heavily or repetitively, a disk can partially or completely rupture. Ruptured disks heal very slowly if at all and may have to be fixed or even removed surgically.
The vertebrae themselves can become damaged too. Like any bone, it is possible to break a vertebra although this is not as common as the other injuries mentioned. The joints between the vertebrae can become warn too which will often result in arthritis.
In short, there is a lot to go wrong with your spine!
The lower section, properly called the lumbar spine, consists of five vertebrae and is the area where most people suffer pain and injuries.
If you experience lower back pain, above and beyond any stiffness from sitting or standing too long, you really should get the cause identified so that the right management and treatment can be prescribed. In many cases, what might have been the right treatment for one problem e.g. a disk bulging against a nerve, can make another problem worse.
Cause of lower back injury
The most common cause of lower back pain is sitting for too long. Your spine is made up from five sections which curve in different directions. These curves act like a spring and help dissipate stress. Your lumbar curve is an inward or lordotic curve.
Long periods of sitting can cause the angle of this curve to change which places inordinate amounts of stress on the disks and ligaments of the spine. In short, what should be an inward curve becomes an outward curve.
A rounded lower back is a weak lower back and lifting or even just bending down can result in serious injury. People are often heard to say “I was just pulling my sock on when my back went” and are under the mistaken impression that it was the pulling on the sock that caused the problem. This is not true; the bending over that was the “straw that broke the camels’ back” – the damage was done by all that sitting.
Heavy lifting – do it right and save your spine!
Lifting heavy weights can also cause injury to the lower back but the risk increases exponentially if you have a rounded back. It is possible to lift very heavy weights safely providing the lumbar arch is maintained. In contrast, a light weight lifted with a rounded back can cause injury to even the strongest weight lifter.
Other causes of lower back pain include muscle tightness which pull the pelvis out of alignment and, you guessed it, alter the lumbar curve. Tight hamstrings and hip flexors will pull on the pelvis and change the lumbar curve. Stand up and tip your pelvis forward and backward and you’ll soon see how these movements affect lower back.
Trauma can also cause lower back injury; a car crash, a fall, a big hit while playing rugby or football could all cause lower back injury.
With so many potential causes of back pain, it is essential that troublesome back pain is investigated and the real cause identified.
Preventing lower back pain
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure or so the saying goes. Here are a few tips for reducing your risk of developing back pain.
Stretch – stretch your hamstrings and your hip flexors (muscles on the front of your hips) to keep your pelvis properly aligned and preserve your lumbar curve
Hip hinge – if you lean forward for any reason, do so with slightly bent knees and from your hips. Do not round your lower back
Sit less – break up long periods of sitting with brief periods of standing and walking to undo the damage caused by being chair-bound
Lose weight – in the same way that being pregnant places a large but temporary stress on your lower back, so too does being overweight. The difference being that women are only pregnant for a few months whereas many people are overweight for decades at a time. Losing weight often cures many back pain issues.
Strengthen your core – your core or midsection muscles encircle your spine and provide it with support in the same way a weight training belt does. Don’t rely on a weight training belt though. Instead, strengthen your core with planks and other bracing exercises to improve spine stability and keep stress off your disks and ligaments
Back pain can make even the smallest movement painful and even impossible so looking after your spine is a must. Don’t take chances with your lower back; if it feels stiff or sore, take it easy and avoid heavy lifting. This is especially true first thing in the morning when your spine is more susceptible to injury.