Lower Back Pain

Lower back pain is a very common problem which is not normally serious but can cause a great deal of discomfort and pain.

Introduction to lower back pain

The lower back (or lumbar region) is a very important part of the body. It provides structural support, protection of organs and also helps us achieve the wide range of movement we are used to.

Lower back pain is a common problem – it is the most frequent form of back pain. It is estimated that up to 80% of people experience pain in the lower back at some point in their lives.

In most cases, pain is mild and the condition is not serious, rectifying itself within a few days. However, for some, lower back pain can be a chronic problem affecting quality of life.

Causes of lower back pain

The cause of lower back pain is often very difficult to identify and arises as a result of a variety of factors. Most often pain is caused by a disruption to the normal functioning of muscles, ligaments, cartilage or any of the other tissues in the lower back.

It is usually referred to as non-specific lower back pain as there is no clear identifiable cause. Although not a serious problem, it may still cause very considerable discomfort and limitation of movement. This most common cause of lower back pain will heal itself within a few days to weeks.

In other cases, pain may be caused by disruption or pressure to nerves in the back. This is referred to as nerve root pain or sciatica – when one of the spinal nerves gets irritated or pressed upon or ‘trapped’, giving rise to the term ‘trapped nerve’.

Pressure on the nerve root not only leads to pain. It can also cause more alarming symptoms such as numbness or pins and needles in the buttock and legs.

Other causes of lower back pain include arthritis, infections, various bone disorders or cancer. These causes are rare and are usually considered after the more common causes have been eliminated by a doctor.

Various lifestyle factors can contribute to lower back pain. These may be simple and obvious, or more complicated, but in all cases your doctor will seek to identify the one most likely in your case, such as:

  • bad posture
  • sitting awkwardly for long periods
  • being overweight
  • lifting heavy objects
  • high stress levels
  • dehydration

Symptoms of lower back pain

The main symptom of lower back pain is an ache, tension or stiffness in the lower back which interferes with everyday activities. For many, symptoms will appear and resolve within a short time with the help of painkillers or exercise. However, lower back pain can also give rise to symptoms such as:

  • pain radiating down the front, side and back of the legs
  • pain increasing with activity
  • headaches
  • anxiety
  • numbing and weakness in the legs

If you experience these symptoms or if they lead to a significant interference with your lifestyle, you should seek professional advice. Furthermore, you should seek the advice of your doctor if you experience lower back pain as well as the following symptoms:

  • fever
  • swelling or inflammation
  • depression
  • incontinence
  • blood in urine

Treatment of lower back pain

Treatment of lower back pain depends on the severity of pain, where it occurs and the suspected cause of pain. For many, lower back pain can be helped greatly by improving posture or with self-help treatments such as alternating hot and cold compresses to the affected area. Simple gentle exercise such as walking or swimming can also be useful if you suffer from low back pain.

If pain persists and interferes significantly with daily activities, you should seek professional advice. Your doctor will most likely prescribe a course of painkillers to keep you mobile. If pain persists beyond these measures, your GP will consider other approaches.

These may include more specific treatments targeting the cause of your low back pain and associated contributing lifestyle factors such as:

  • Physiotherapy
  • Weight-loss programme if needed
  • Increasing daily exercise
  • Prescribing stronger medication

Complementary & alternative treatment

Many people reading these pages will be interested to learn what alternative or complementary treatments can be used to treat lower back pain. Common therapies used include:

  • Osteopathic treatment
  • Chiropractic treatment
  • Acupuncture (also used in association with osteopathic or chiropractic techniques)
  • Bowen therapy
  • Herbal remedies to relieve pain such as arnica gel externally or devil’s claw internally.

Further reading:
Back pain
Back pain symptoms
Back pain causes
Upper back pain
Back pain exercises


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