Oh, My Aching Back!

We’ve all felt it: that sharp stab or dull ache at the small of our back that makes everything else going on in our lives take a backseat. It might come from lifting one heavy box or after a day of moving furniture, after a night of sleeping in a different bed or hours after a particularly long car ride. It’s called lower back pain and over 80% of the population will experience it in some form, even though 9 out of 10 will never actually know the root cause of their low back pain. It’s also responsible for 264 million lost workdays and $50 billion in health costs each a year. That’s not just uncomfortable, it’s downright painful!


When we talk about the lumbar section of the spine, we’re referring to the vertebrae of your lower back, as opposed to the cervical section, which is the vertebral portion located in your neck. In all, there are 5 lumbar vertebrae--labeled in shorthand as L1-L5--and just like in the rest of your spine, you have discs filled with a jelly-like substance between them. Connected to and interlacing these vertebrae is a complex network of muscles, tendons, and ligaments that support and strengthen the spine. It’s an amazing example of biological engineering and allows us to perform some truly remarkable things.


Pain occurs when the lower back isn’t working correctly and it manifests in several possible ways. For example, you might experience pain because you’ve strained one the ligaments or muscles located in your lower back. This type of strain is usually brought on by strenuous physical activity, like picking up heavy things, or spending a particularly rough day on your feet. Thankfully, it’s also usually short lived. Once you rest, use ice or heat to deal with inflammation, or even take an over-the-counter pain reliever, you will generally get quick relief and feel better in no time.


Then, there is the lower back pain you feel from a compression of the spinal nerves. This compression is generally caused by either a herniated disc, when the intervertebral disc ruptures due to misuse, overexertion, or degradation and compresses the nerves running alongside and in the vertebrae, or by bone growths that compress the spinal nerves in a similar fashion. Whichever way this compression happens, unfortunately, this type of pain can last much longer than a simple strain. This back pain may feel either like a low, dull ache, or a sharp, stabbing pain. It may radiate down your back and into your buttocks and legs. It may even cause tingling and numbness in them.


The good news is that even for nerve pain in the back, surgery is usually never needed. Instead, for this type of pain, your doctor may recommend a combination of rest, physical therapy, over the counter or prescription medications, or even injections to help with pain management. The key is to reduce inflammation and pain symptoms in order for the spine to fully recover.

At the Center for Cranial and Spinal Surgery, surgery is always the last option. We understand that, unfortunately, lower back pain is a normal and almost assumed part of life, and we work hard to help you correct any postural behaviors that may have contributed to the problem, as well as get satisfactory relief from the symptoms.

Dr. Donald Hope