It's a pose that you have performed and seen probably thousands of times. A tensed up face, leaning to one side, and an arm hooked to holding the lower back.

Lower back pain is an extremely prevalent condition in the United States. A study from a few years back found that over the course of three months, more than 1/4 of U.S. adults have experienced lower back pain lasting at least a day. I'd wager that over the course of a lifetime, just about everyone will experience lower back pain. (It is reported to be the fifth most common reason for going to the doctor.)

In terms of what falls under the lower back pain (LBP) umbrella - pretty much anywhere from the bottom of your ribs to your legs would qualify. It can result from a herniated disc, compression fractures, overuse, strain, just getting older, and more. The pain can be a consistent, dull pain - or it can be sharp and severe. LBP can lead to some issues with your legs as well. Numbness, tingling, or pain down to even below the knee.

Aside from being a personal pain and hindrance, LBP also has a major effect in the workforce. When LBP gets to the point where it limits a person's movement or ability to perform - businesses lose productivity and money, a person may lose income (depending on their working situation), and the medical costs total in the dozens of billions of dollars a year. And if LBP pulls a person out of work, this can cause some stress upon the individual and the company! But it's not just financial stress - the idea of being out of work (even with an injury/illness) can put some people at concern for their job security.

When it comes to LBP, you've either got it for a brief period (acute) or for a long time (chronic). We usually draw the line at around three months. Acute LBP is usually handled with at-home treatment. It’s wise to know what to do when you first get back pain (ice or heat, medicines, etc.). If it is work-related, then you need to talk to your supervisor right away. Many times, it can be handled with simple first aid as discussed below.

Real quick aside on first-aid for LBP:

Heat or ice? Usually ice initially, then heat after 2-3 days, but there are many variations on this.

Medicines: Ibuprofen (Advil/Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) - MAKE SURE you educate yourself on the side effects and follow doctors' or package instructions.

If you can, it's good to keep moving. If your back hurts, try to get up and walk for 10 minutes or so, if you can. Stay on flat surfaces. It you've got to sit, make sure you change positions every half-hour or so.

Chronic back pain oftentimes requires more intense and involved treatment. Acupuncture, chiropractics, massages, and such can be done. More extreme issues concerning herniated discs may call for a procedure.

People with acute LBP can usually return to work within a few days - with the understanding that they will have to be taking it easy for a little while. Under Workers’ Compensation, most times workers can return to light or modified duty after seeing the doctor. Furthermore, depending on the nature of the LBP and the type of work, some workers can return to regular duty. After return to work, individuals may still be slightly uncomfortable, but that is normal - many times it's not until normal activities are resumed that pain relief finally comes. As long as it is handled correctly, this usually works for both the business and the individual - less stress for everyone.

Depending on the type of work, sometimes changes may be made at the work station or at the work area to address any ergonomic concerns. This may be accomplished with the assistance of company Safety, Human Resources, or Engineering professionals. 

  • While you probably can't avoid it forever, you can take steps to prevent LBP. Here are a few tips:
  • Exercise. A strong and healthy body is less likely to be put under stress that it cannot handle.
  • Learn the proper way to lift!! Legs, people!
  • Maintain good posture. Sitting and standing, your body is supporting its weight properly with good posture.
  • Quit smoking. Because of its effect on bone loss, smoking can make you weaker in your spine and increase your chances of getting hurt.
  • Low-heeled shoes. May or may not be as stylish, but your back doesn't care about style. A protective sleeping position. If you are on your side, try a pillow between your knees. For those of you that sleep on your back, perhaps a small pillow or shirt/towel rolled up to support your back. (Also - try a stiffer/softer mattress. Can make a world of difference.)
  • Maintain a healthy weight - less strain on your body.

Lower back pain is prevalent in society, and yeah, you'll probably run into it at some point. But take the steps to reduce your chances and be sure you follow the proper treatment when you do get it. Being in pain all the time is no fun.

Take care,

Dr. Mueller