Your lower back is a remarkable machine, reliably carrying out a critical and all-but-invisible support role in a host of daily activities, including sitting, standing, walking and lifting. But like any machine, your lower back can malfunction. Indeed, most adults will suffer low back pain at some point in their lives. It's not entirely clear why the lower back is so prone to trouble, but it probably relates to the remarkable stresses placed on it over a lifetime.
Although low back pain is common, each person's experience is as individual as he or she is. For example, low back pain can appear suddenly or gradually and can be severe and debilitating or merely annoying. It may feel like a dull ache or a sharp, stabbing pain. Low back pain can seem focused in a single spot, or it can spread throughout the back and even down the legs. And it can quickly get better completely on its own, or it may stubbornly resist treatment and persist for years.
This diversity occurs, at least in part, because low back pain is not one disease; it's a symptom that has many possible causes. There are some simple, effective treatments for some types of back pain. But the fact is that in most cases the cause of the pain is unknown, there is no single best treatment, and it cannot be determined if the pain is going to get better quickly or last a long time. Happily, nine out of 10 people with new back pain will get completely better on their own within eight weeks or sooner.
- The lower back protects the spinal cord.
- The lower back serves as an attachment point for many muscles that support the spine.
- The lower back makes it possible to sit, stand, walk and flex your torso in all directions.
Anatomy of a vertebra.
Illustration created by InteliHealth designer Kelly Farrington.
When it comes to back pain, people are a lot like snowflakes — no two are exactly the same. In part, this follows from the back's complicated anatomy and the array of possible causes of pain. But even for back pain resulting from the same cause — disk disease, for example — each person's perception may be different.
Factors other than the specific cause of the back problem can influence how the pain feels. Differences in activities, posture and even the quality of sleep can affect how you perceive pain. And psychological factors, such as emotional stress, can increase the sensation of pain or the ability to tolerate what might otherwise be mild symptoms.
For these reasons, if you have low back pain severe enough to interfere with your normal activities or quality of life, you should see a health-care provider for a full evaluation. Also see your health-care provider if you have low back pain that simply makes you worry. Even if the exam doesn't turn up a cause — which, remember, is often the case — learning that your pain isn't a sign of something life threatening is well worth the effort. Your health-care provider also may offer advice on how to treat your back pain, so a visit may be very beneficial.