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By In-house Team, Circle Health Group

Lower back pain: symptoms, causes, treatments

Lower back pain is a problem nearly everyone faces at some point in their lives. Understanding the symptoms, causes, and available treatments can be the key to managing it effectively.

Lower back pain in a nutshell

construction worker with hand on back due to lower back painYou've probably heard a colleague, friend, family-member or even yourself mention a bad or aching lower back before. Lower back pain is almost as universal as the common cold, and it's one of the top reasons people visit their doctors. In fact, according to NHS UK, nearly 80% of adults experience lower back pain at least once in their lives.

But why should you care about understanding lower back pain? The better you understand this common ailment, the better equipped you'll be to address it head-on, either through preventative measures or treatments.

Symptoms of lower back pain

Lower back pain can sneak up on you, presenting itself in several ways. For some, it's a sudden, sharp sting, while for others, it might feel like a dull, constant throb. Knowing how to identify these symptoms is your first line of defence.

Common lower back pain symptoms

When it strikes, lower back pain can take on a few different forms:

Sharp pain vs. dull ache

Some describe their pain as a sudden, piercing jolt – especially after a particular movement or lifting something heavy. Others might feel a more constant, dull ache that doesn't go away easily. Both can be equally disruptive, affecting daily activities and quality of life.

Other symptoms

It's not just about the pain. Lower back pain can sometimes come with muscle spasms, making it difficult to move or get comfortable. There's also the potential for pain to move up to the upper body or down the legs. If you're experiencing pain that seems to travel or if certain positions trigger spasms, it's likely tied to your lower back.

Other lower back pain symptoms to keep an eye on

Beyond the typical pain and aches, there are other signs that your back is crying out for attention:

Numbness, weakness, or tingling sensations

If your lower back pain comes with a side of numbness or tingling, particularly in your buttocks, thighs, or even down to your feet, it could be a sign that a nerve is being pinched or irritated. It's essential to address this promptly to prevent long-term nerve damage.

Problems with muscle strength

Struggling to lift items you once found easy? Or finding it hard to maintain a posture? Muscle strength problems in the affected areas might be directly linked to your lower back pain. Our back muscles play a pivotal role in many of our daily movements, and pain can often lead to decreased strength and functionality.

In the world of lower back pain, knowledge is your most potent weapon. By understanding and recognising these symptoms, you're better poised to seek the right treatment and care that you or your loved ones might need. And remember, always consult with a healthcare professional if you're unsure about your symptoms. Your back supports you every day – it's time to support it back.

In the world of lower back pain, knowledge is your most potent weapon.

Causes - What's behind your lower back pain?

To understand why you are suffering from lower back pain, you need to pinpoint its root cause. There may be many reasons why you feel that constant throb or sharp twinge.

Let's take a closer look at the lower back and uncover the culprits.

The lumbar spine and its role

Located at the base of your backbone, the lumbar region comprises the lower five vertebrae, often referred to as L1-L5. This segment of the spine is quite the workhorse – it carries the weight of your upper body and provides mobility for everyday motions like bending and twisting.

Now, considering how important it is for carrying weight and supporting movement, it's not surprising that the lumbar spine is a common area where back pain originates. As it bears so much of your body's weight and movement, it's also more susceptible to injury and strain.

Exploring common causes of lower back pain

Muscle or ligament strain

Whether you've been a little too enthusiastic in your last workout or spent an entire day binge-watching your favourite series, long periods of activity or inactivity can lead to a strain. Repeated heavy lifting or sudden, awkward movements can stress the muscles and ligaments, causing painful spasms.

Herniated disc issues

Think of your spine's discs as small cushions between your vertebrae. Sometimes, the soft material inside these discs can bulge or rupture, pressing on a nerve. The result? Pain, and sometimes, numbness or weakness in the leg, commonly referred to as sciatica.

Bone-related issues

The facet joints in your back enable movement, but they can also be a source of pain. Whether due to wear and tear or conditions like ankylosing spondylitis, which causes inflammation of the spine's joints, bone-related issues can be at the heart of persistent pain.

Spinal stenosis

As we age, our spinal canal can narrow, resulting in spinal stenosis. This narrowing can put pressure on the nerves that pass through the spine, leading to lower back pain, and often, leg pain or tingling.

Other conditions increasing your risk of lower back pain

While the causes mentioned above are common culprits, several other factors might be the root causes behind your back discomfort, some of them causing quite acute pain.

Chronic back pain and lifestyle

Believe it or not, your daily habits play a role. Poor posture when standing or sitting, especially when working for long periods, can contribute to back pain over time. It's a gentle reminder that sometimes, it's the small daily activities that can have the biggest impact on our health.

Nerve root and spinal cord problems

Conditions like a pinched nerve or infections can irritate the nerve root, leading to pain. The spinal cord running through the spine can also become compressed or damaged, resulting in persistent symptoms.

Underlying conditions

Factors like obesity can increase the strain on the back muscles. Additionally, diseases like spinal arthritis can affect the lower back, leading to discomfort. It's essential to consider your overall health, as many conditions can indirectly contribute to back pain.

To sum up, our backs are intricate, comprising a network of muscles, bones, ligaments, and nerves. Knowing the potential causes behind your lower back pain is a crucial step toward seeking the right treatment and ensuring a pain-free, active life.

Diagnosing lower back pain

Understanding the root of your lower back pain is, as mentioned, often like solving a complex mystery. So, how do we diagnose lower back pain, one step at a time?

Importance of timely diagnosis

Every moment you neglect a recurring twinge or persistent ache in your back, you're playing a game of risk. Lower back pain isn't just a fleeting nuisance; if left unaddressed, it can transform into chronic pain, complicating your daily life.

It's not just about discomfort, either. Untreated, continuous back pain can cause long-term spinal issues, deteriorating muscle strength, or even nerve dysfunction. Early diagnosis means early intervention, reducing the risk of the pain becoming a permanent guest in your life.

Popular diagnostic tools

In the vast toolkit of medical diagnostics, a few stand out for their efficiency and precision when it comes to lower back pain:

MRI Scans

MRI, or Magnetic Resonance Imaging, offers a detailed look inside your body. These scans can reveal herniated discs, problems with bones, muscles, tissue, tendons, nerves, and even blood vessels. It's like having a magnifying glass that can peer through skin and bone, offering invaluable insights.

Physical examinations

Don't underestimate the power of a hands-on approach. Your physician might assess muscle strength, check for areas causing pain, and test nerve function. This examination can often identify whether specific activities or movements exacerbate or ease the pain.

Adjusting your workspace to ensure it's back-friendly can make a significant difference.

Treatment for lower back pain

Now that we've diagnosed the problem how do we treat it and get relief. Whether you're seeking an instant reprieve or a long-term solution, there's a range of treatment options tailored to your needs – some of them able to treat chronic lower back pain before the need for surgery.

Over-the-counter solutions

When lower back pain strikes, sometimes all you crave is swift relief. Here's what you can find right at your local pharmacy:

Anti-inflammatory medicine

Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs, like ibuprofen, can provide temporary relief by reducing inflammation around the sore area. Always remember to take them as directed and consult with a pharmacist or doctor if you are unsure.

Hot and cold packs

Something as simple as applying heat or cold can work wonders. Cold packs reduce swelling, while heat eases muscle tension and spasms. They're the unsung heroes of immediate pain relief.

Medical treatments

When over-the-counter solutions aren't enough, it's time to bring in the experts.


A physiotherapist can introduce you to exercises that strengthen your back muscles and improve flexibility. With guided therapy, many find significant relief and even prevent future occurrences of pain.

Surgical options

Surgery is generally the last resort when other treatments don’t work. From minimally invasive procedures to more extensive operations, the goal remains the same: to alleviate pain and improve quality of life.

Preventative measures and lifestyle changes

Prevention is better than cure. But what everyday lifestyle steps can you take to ensure you give your back the best backing?

Changing your environment to better support your lower back

Adjusting your workspace to ensure it's back-friendly can make a significant difference. Whether it's an ergonomic chair for proper posture or ensuring your computer monitor is at eye level, small changes can save you from long-term strain.

Exercises and stretches

Regular exercises and daily movements, particularly core-strengthening ones, can bolster your back muscles. Additionally, incorporating daily stretches can enhance flexibility, ensuring your back remains agile and pain-free.

Taking charge of your lower back pain means understanding it, diagnosing it promptly, and addressing it with both immediate and long-term solutions. Here's to a life where every step is pain-free and every day filled with free-moving activity.

Overcoming lower back pain

Lower back pain, though common, isn't something to be brushed aside. Recognising its potential impact on your life—whether it's a missed day at work, a forfeited family outing, or a forsaken hobby—emphasises the importance of addressing it head-on. Each twinge, ache, or persistent pain is your body communicating with you.

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How do I book an appointment?

If you're concerned about symptoms you're experiencing or require further information on this subject, talk to a GP or see an expert consultant at your local Circle Hospital.