low back pain

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Low Back Pain



Low back pain is a common musculoskeletal symptom that may be either acute or chronic. It may be caused by a variety of diseases and disorders that affect the lumbar spine. Low back pain is often accompanied by sciatica, which is pain that involves the sciatic nerve and is felt in the lower back, the buttocks, and the backs of the thighs.


Low back pain is a symptom that affects 80% of the general United States population at some point in life with sufficient severity to cause absence from work. It is the second most common reason for visits to primary care doctors, and is estimated to cost the American economy $75 billion every year.
Low back pain may be experienced in several different ways:
  • Localized. In localized pain the patient will feel soreness or discomfort when the doctor palpates, or presses on, a specific surface area of the lower back.
  • Diffuse. Diffuse pain is spread over a larger area and comes from deep tissue layers.
  • Radicular. The pain is caused by irritation of a nerve root. Sciatica is an example of radicular pain.
  • Referred. The pain is perceived in the lower back but is caused by inflammation elsewhere—often in the kidneys or lower abdomen.

Causes and symptoms

Acute pain

Acute pain in the lower back that does not extend to the leg is most commonly caused by a sprain or muscle tear, usually occurring within 24 hours of heavy lifting or overuse of the back muscles. The pain is usually localized, and there may be muscle spasms or soreness when the doctor touches the area. The patient usually feels better when resting.

Chronic pain

Chronic low back pain has several different possible causes:
MECHANICAL. Chronic strain on the muscles of the lower back may be caused by obesity; pregnancy; or job-related stooping, bending, or other stressful postures.
MALIGNANCY. Low back pain at night that is not relieved by lying down may be caused by a tumor in the cauda equina (the roots of the spinal nerves controlling sensation in and movement of the legs), or a cancer that has spread to the spine from the prostate, breasts, or lungs. The risk factors for the spread of cancer to the lower back include a history of smoking, sudden weight loss, and age over 50.
ANKYLOSING SPONDYLITIS. Ankylosing spondylitis is a form of arthritis that causes chronic pain in the lower back. The pain is made worse by sitting or lying down and improves when the patient gets up. It is most commonly seen in males between 16 and 35. Ankylosing spondylitis is often confused with mechanical back pain in its early stages.
HERNIATED SPINAL DISK. Disk herniation is a disorder in which a spinal disk begins to bulge outward between the vertebrae. Herniated or ruptured disks are a common cause of chronic low back pain in adults.
PSYCHOGENIC. Back pain that is out of proportion to a minor injury, or that is unusually prolonged, may be associated with a somatoform disorder or other psychiatric disturbance.

Low back pain with leg involvement

Low back pain that radiates down the leg usually indicates involvement of the sciatic nerve. The nerve can be pinched or irritated by herniated disks, tumors of the cauda equina, abscesses in the space between the spinal cord and its covering, spinal stenosis, and compression fractures. Some patients experience numbness or weakness of the legs as well as pain.


The diagnosis of low back pain can be complicated. Most cases are initially evaluated by primary care physicians rather than by specialists.

Initial workup

PATIENT HISTORY. The doctor will ask the patient specific questions about the location of the pain, its characteristics, its onset, and the body positions or activities that make it better or worse. If the doctor suspects that the pain is referred from other organs, he or she will ask about a history of diabetes, peptic ulcers, kidney stones, urinary tract infections, or heart murmurs.
PHYSICAL EXAMINATION. The doctor will examine the patient's back and hips to check for conditions that require surgery or emergency treatment. The examination includes several tests that involve moving the patient's legs in specific positions to test for nerve root irritation or disk herniation. The flexibility of the lumbar vertebrae may be measured to rule out ankylosing spondylitis.

Imaging studies

Imaging studies are not usually performed on patients whose history and physical examination suggest routine muscle strain or overuse. X rays are ordered for patients whose symptoms suggest cancer, infection, inflammation, pelvic or abdominal disease, or bone fractures. MRIs are usually ordered only for patients with certain types of masses or tumors.
It is important to know that the appearance of some abnormalities on imaging studies of the lower back does not necessarily indicate that they cause the pain. Many patients have minor deformities that do not create symptoms. The doctor must compare the results of imaging studies very carefully with information from the patient's history and physical examination.


All forms of treatment of low back pain are aimed either at symptom relief or to prevent interference with the processes of healing. None of these methods appear to speed up healing.
Sites of low back pain. Pain anywhere along the spine (A) can be caused by osteoarthritis. Pain along one or the other side of the spine may be (B) a kidney infection. Trauma to back muscles, joints, or disks (C) causes low back pain. Damage to the coccyx (D) can occur during a fall. Sciatica (E) can cause pain to run down from the back and buttocks area down a leg.
Sites of low back pain. Pain anywhere along the spine (A) can be caused by osteoarthritis. Pain along one or the other side of the spine may be (B) a kidney infection. Trauma to back muscles, joints, or disks (C) causes low back pain. Damage to the coccyx (D) can occur during a fall. Sciatica (E) can cause pain to run down from the back and buttocks area down a leg.
(Illustration by Electronic Illustrators Group.)

Acute pain

Acute back pain is treated with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, muscle relaxants, or aspirin. Applications of heat or cold compresses are also helpful to most patients. If the patient has not experienced some improvement after several weeks of treatment, the doctor will reinvestigate the cause of the pain.

Chronic pain

Patients with chronic back pain are treated witha combination of medications, physical therapy, andoccupational or lifestyle modification. The medicationsgiven are usually NSAIDs, although patients withhypertension, kidney problems, or stomach ulcers should not take these drugs. Patients who take NSAIDs for longer than six weeks should be monitored periodically for complications.
Physical therapy for chronic low back pain usually includes regular exercise for fitness and flexibility, and massage or application of heat if necessary.
Lifestyle modifications include giving up smoking, weight reduction (if necessary), and evaluation of the patient's occupation or other customary activities.
Patients with herniated disks are treated surgically if the pain does not respond to medication.
Patients with chronic low back pain sometimes-benefit from pain management techniques, including biofeedback, acupuncture, and chiropractic manipulation of the spine.
Psychotherapy is recommended for patients whose back pain is associated with a somatoform, anxiety, or depressive disorder.

Low back pain with leg involvement

Treatment of sciatica and other disorders that involve the legs may include NSAIDs. Patients with long-standing sciatica or spinal stenosis that do not respond to NSAIDs are treated surgically. Although some doctors use cortisone injections to relieve the pain, this form of treatment is still debated.

Alternative treatment

A thorough differential diagnosis is important before any treatment is considered. There are times when alternative therapies are the most beneficial, and other times when more invasive treatments are needed.


Chiropractic treats patients by manipulating or adjusting sections of the spine. It is one of the most popular forms of alternative treatment in the United States for relief of back pain caused by straining or lifting injuries. Some osteopathic physicians, physical therapists, and naturopathic physicians also use spinal manipulation to treat patients with low back pain.

Traditional chinese medicine

Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine treat low back pain with acupuncture, tui na (push-and-rub) massage, and the application of herbal poultices.

Herbal medicine

Herbal medicine can utilize a variety of antispasmodic herbs in combination to help relieve low back pain due to spasm. Lobelia (Lobelia inflata) and myrrh (Commiphora molmol) are two examples of antispasmodic herbs.


Homeopathic treatment for acute back pain consists of applications of Arnica oil to the sore area or oral doses of Arnica or Rhus toxicodendron. Bellis perennis is recommended for deep muscle injuries. Other remedies may be recommended based on the symptoms presented by the patient.

Body work and yoga

Massage and the numerous other body work techniques can be very effective in treating low back pain. Yoga, practiced regularly and done properly, can be most useful in preventing future episodes of low back pain.


The prognosis for most patients with acute low back pain is excellent. About 80% of patients recover completely in 4-6 weeks. The prognosis for recovery from chronic pain depends on the underlying cause.


Low back pain due to muscle strain can be prevented by lifestyle choices, including regular physical exercise and weight control, avoiding smoking, and learning the proper techniques for lifting and moving heavy objects. Exercises designed to strengthen the muscles of the lower back, and chairs or car seats with lumbar supports are also recommended.



Hellman, David B. "Arthritis & Musculoskeletal Disorders." In Current Medical Diagnosis and Treatment, 1998, edited by Stephen McPhee, et al., 37th ed. Stamford: Appleton & Lange, 1997.

Key terms

Ankylosing spondylitis — A type of arthritis that causes gradual loss of flexibility in the spinal column. It occurs most commonly in males between 16 and 35.
Cauda equina — The roots of the spinal nerves controlling movement and sensation in the legs. These nerve roots are located in the lower spine and resemble a horse's tail (cauda equina in Latin).
Chiropractic — A method of treatment based on the interactions of the spine and the nervous system. Chiropractors adjust or manipulate segments of the patient's spinal column in order to relieve pain.
Lumbar spine — The segment of the human spine above the pelvis that is involved in low back pain. There are five vertebrae, or bones, in the lumbar spine.
Radicular — Pain that is caused by the root of a nerve.
Referred pain — Pain that is experienced in one part of the body but originates in another organ or area. The pain is referred because the nerves that supply the damaged organ enter the spine in the same segment as the nerves that supply the area where the pain is felt.
Sciatica — Pain caused by irritation of the sciatic nerve. Sciatica is felt in the lower back, the buttocks, and the backs of the upper legs.
Spinal stenosis — A form of sciatica that is caused by a narrowing of the spinal canal in the lumbar vertebrae. The narrowing puts pressure on the roots of the sciatic nerve.

low back pain (lbp)

Etymology: ME, low + AS, baec + L, poena, penalty
local or referred pain at the base of the spine caused by a sprain, a strain, osteoarthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, a neoplasm, or a herniated intervertebral disk. Low back pain is a common complaint and is often associated with poor posture, obesity, sagging abdominal muscles, sitting for prolonged periods of time, or improper body mechanics.
observations Pain may be localized and static. It may be accompanied by muscle weakness or spasms, or it may radiate down one or both legs, as in sciatica. Pain may be initiated or increased by coughing, sneezing, rising from a seated position, lifting, stretching, bending, or turning. To guard against the pain, the person may decrease the range of motion of the spine. If an intervertebral disk is herniated, deep pressure over the interspace generally causes pain, and flexion of the hip elicits sciatic pain when the knee is extended but not when the knee is flexed (Lasègue's sign).
interventions The patient is placed in a semi-Fowler's position on a firm mattress with the knees flexed and supported. Analgesics, muscle relaxants, tranquilizers, and antiinflammatories may be administered. Dry or moist heat is applied. If a herniated disk is suspected, diagnostic x-ray, MR, CT, and myelographic examinations may be performed, as well as pelvic traction and physiotherapy, consisting of hydrotherapy, diathermy, or the application of hot paraffin. When the acute pain subsides, the patient may increase activity as tolerated, and a corset or back brace may be ordered. The patient is instructed to sit on a straight-backed chair, with the legs uncrossed or extended on a footstool, and to sleep on the side or back with the knees flexed and a small pillow under the head. Before discharge the patient is advised to maintain a normal weight, to follow the ordered exercise program while avoiding fatigue, to wear flat-heeled shoes, and to avoid constipation by using natural laxatives, if required.
nursing considerations The nurse encourages the patient to follow the recommended regimen. Correct body mechanics, adequate and appropriate exercise, and the elimination of excess weight are emphasized.

low back pain

Discomfort of the lower lumbar region, in the US, the 2nd most common cause–after the common cold–for seeking medical care; LBP affects ± 31 million (US) at any given time and costs $8 x 109/yr Diagnosis MRI of lumbosacral spine.

Patient discussion about low back pain

Q. I have a low back pain that radiates to my leg when i pick up stuff. Is it a disc herniation? I am a 43 years old bank teller. During the past 5 months I've suffered from a low back pain. The pain is not very strong, but it gets much worse while doing physical activity. When i walk or lift heavy things the pain is even stronger, and it radiates to my left leg. Can it be signs for disc herniation?

A. It's possible that you have a nerve impingement from a disc herniation, but not necessarily so. What you need to know is that even if you have a herniated disc, the question is what would the recommended treatment be?
90% or more of herniated discs resolve without surgical treatment within 6 months. MRI imaging is generally only indicated if one is considering surgery; in other words, your pain and neurological status is such that surgery is clinically indicated. Then, an MRI may be helpful for the surgeon. If surgery is not indicated based on clinical/symptoms, then it probably is unwise to get an MRI. They often show abnormalities that are simply 'red herrings' and often prompt people to proceed with surgery that really is not needed. Beware!

Q. What is the best way to strengthen the low back muscles? After having a low back strain I've been told I need to work better on the lower back muscles as too much stress is on them and they're not strong enough to handle it...any suggestions?

A. i have lower back strains but that is because i run. my back muscles are stronger then abdomen muscles and that causes an imbalance. the best way is starting swimming. the best sport for the body... and a thing to do for now (not instead of swimming just for the time being until you'll develop muscles)- lay on your stomach on a bed with your head sticking out for about 10-15 minutes every now and then. this will lengthen your back muscle and prevent strains for now.

Q. I have developed a low back pain from some heavy lifting over the weekend. What tests in the doctor's office can I expect to confirm this. And what should the treatment be. I suspect a sacriliac strain.

A. More than likely you have developed some muscle strain. If the pain goes away on it's own after rest for a few days, I suspect that's all it is. If the pain persists and starts to radiate down your buttocks and leg(s), then you should see an orthopedic surgeon for more extensive tests. Good luck to you.

More discussions about low back pain
References in periodicals archive ?
Los profesionales de enfermeria detectan que entre los inconvenientes del reposo absoluto de 24 h, se encuentran la lumbalgia, la dificultad de conciliar el sueno y la imposibilidad de miccionar a causa de la posicion, siendo este ultimo el principal problema que mas incomoda a los pacientes debiendo proceder al sondaje vesical en diversas ocasiones (27).
The coexistence of spinal stenosis and lumbalgia before the procedure may be a risk factor for symptomatic neurological damage.
However, lumbalgia persisted and she started to complain of paresthesias in the lower extremity and of anuria 2 weeks later.