Acute lower back pain 101: causes, treatments & prevention

Everyone experiences lower back pain from time to time, regardless of their physical ability level. It’s not surprising since the lower back is part of your core group of muscles, says Tyler Waclawski, certified exercise physiologist at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.

“The lower back is used during almost all of our movements,” says Waclawski. “From sitting up in bed to bending over to put on your shoes, your core is being activated. That makes it easy to injure, and it takes time to heal when it’s hurt.”

What are the most common symptoms of lower back pain?

Traditional signs of lower back pain include:

  • Muscle stiffness and tightness
  • Radiating pain down the leg
  • Shooting or stabbing pain

“Tightness typically indicates a minor injury like a pulled muscle,” says Waclawski. “If you have a more severe injury, you may experience shooting pain, or pain radiating down your leg. When that happens, dial back the amount of activity you’re doing, try icing it, and do some light stretching if the injury’s not too severe.”

Non-traditional signs of lower back pain include:

  • Numbness
  • Weakness
  • Difficulty walking, standing or balancing

“Numbness in your feet or legs is a sign of something more serious, such as a compressed nerve within the back,” says Waclawski. “If you experience numbness or weakness or difficulty walking, contact your doctor.”

Are there different kinds of lower back pain?

The general rule of thumb is that:

  • Acute lower back pain, a temporary condition most of us will experience, is anything that causes symptoms for 4-6 weeks.
  • Chronic lower back pain is anything that causes symptoms for 6 weeks or more.

“Acute lower back pain is what you’re experiencing when you feel as though you ‘tweaked’ your back picking up your kid, or you ‘slept on it wrong,’” says Waclawski. “But the symptoms of chronic and acute pain are very similar. Both can restrict your ability to complete simple tasks that require you to rotate your spine or bend over, so it’s important to keep up with how long your symptoms have been going on so you know when it’s time to see a doctor.”

How do you know it’s time to see a doctor?

“It takes time for a lower back injury to heal, but if you’re 4 weeks in and still having pain when you’re at rest, it’s time,” says Waclawski. “Pain while you’re moving is one thing; pain while you’re sitting still is a bigger issue. And again, be on the lookout for numbness or weakness in the legs, any problem that affects your walking or gait pattern. An inability to balance or stand comfortably is also an issue.”

What activities lead to lower back pain most often?

“It can be really hard to trace lower back pain because almost every movement engages your back or core in some way,” says Waclawski. “The most common cause is bending forward to lift something — and it doesn’t even have to be heavy, although that will add to the risk. More often than not, it’s caused by something like bending over to pick up a shoebox. Or by something like improper chair posture.”

Other causes of acute lower back pain include:

  • Compression fractures or herniated disk
  • Muscle spasm, strains or tears
  • Sciatica, spinal deformity or infection
  • Arthritis
  • Kidney stones
  • Problems related to pregnancy
  • Female reproductive conditions, such as ovarian or uterine issues

How do you treat acute lower back pain?

Take 3 steps:

  1. Ice the injury to reduce inflammation for the first 24-48 hours. (Heat is typically only used for chronic lower back pain.)
  2. Take an anti-inflammatory medication such as ibuprofen if you’re comfortable doing so.
  3. Reduce activity, but don’t eliminate it.

“Rest when you can, but continue with light movements such as walking and light stretching to encourage blood flow to the injured area,” says Waclawski. “That helps speed up recovery and prevent stiffness from setting in.”

How do you prevent lower back pain?

Take these 5 steps:

1. Never bend forward at the waist.

That puts a majority of the pressure onto your lower back, which makes injury far more likely.

2. Squat and lift with your legs.

This spreads the load throughout your lower body. That allows you to engage larger muscle groups and not concentrate all the pressure in one place.

3. Warm up.

Even if you’re just doing small, day-to-day tasks like gardening or moving a piece of furniture, do some kind of warm up. That will loosen up your muscles and make them harder to injure.

4. Pay attention to your posture and work setup.

Working on good posture and setting up your workspace as ergonomically as possible can have a huge impact on back health.

5. Add core exercise to your routine.

The best way to prevent lower back injury is to strengthen the muscles in that area, which you can do with simple core exercises and stretches. Try doing one set of planks (holding at the top of a push-up position), superman or bridge exercises 3 times a week, and try to stretch at some point each day.

“You don’t have to go to the gym to see a real improvement in your core strength,” says Waclawski. “Adding a few sets of strengthening exercises to your week will not only make you less likely to hurt yourself, but also to make injuries less severe when they do happen.”

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).

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