Lower back pain, sometimes called lumbago, is not a specific disease diagnosis. It’s a symptom of several different types of medical problems.
It usually results from a problem with one or more parts of the lower back, such as:
- ligaments and muscles
- intervertebral discs
- the bony structures that make up the spine, called vertebral bodies or vertebrae
It can also be due to a problem with nearby organs, such as the kidneys.
According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, 75 to 85 percent of Americans will experience back pain in their lifetime. Of those, 50 percent will have more than one episode within a year.
In 90 percent of all cases, the pain gets better without surgery. Talk with a doctor if you’re experiencing back pain.
This diagram shows which muscles in the lower back may be causing you pain.
Many people will not need extensive treatment for back pain. Over-the-counter pain medications are often sufficient.
In more severe cases, stronger treatments may be necessary, but they’re typically provided under close supervision from your doctor.
The majority of back pain episodes
Analgesics, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), are another category of pain relievers. They are also an option for back pain, though they don’t have the anti-inflammatory properties.
Be careful with medications like ibuprofen if you have kidney problems or stomach ulcers.
Never take more than the recommended dose of over-the-counter medications without a doctor’s recommendation, as even these medications may have severe side effects if taken incorrectly.
Other medication options
Topical rubs and ointments
Topical products may be highly effective at reducing back pain. Many of these contain ingredients like ibuprofen and lidocaine and come in the form of:
Muscle relaxants can also be used for lower back pain, especially if muscle spasms occur alongside pain. These medications act on the central nervous system to reduce pain.
Antidepressants and other medications can sometimes be used off-label for the treatment of back pain.
If your back pain is severe, your doctor may prescribe amitriptyline, a tricyclic antidepressant, because it focuses on different parts of the pain response. This antidepressant may also work better for nerve-related pain.
Your doctor might also recommend cortisone steroid injections for certain causes of back pain. For example, a person with back pain that involves a nerve may get a cortisone steroid injection.
Opioids are stronger pain medications that can be prescribed for more severe pain. These medications, such as oxycodone (OxyContin) and a combination of acetaminophen and hydrocodone (Vicodin), act on the brain cells and body to reduce pain.
Opioids should be used with caution, however, due to a risk of addiction.
Surgery is usually reserved for those with structural abnormalities that haven’t responded to nonsurgical treatment with medication and therapy.
Surgery may be an option for people with:
- severe, constant pain with identifiable structural abnormalities
- nerve compression that causes muscles to become weak
- spinal cord compression that limits daily activities
Alternative therapies that
Be sure to talk with your doctor before undergoing any alternative or complementary treatment. If you’re experiencing back pain, these lower back pain treatment options might be helpful.
If you need help finding a primary care doctor, then check out our FindCare tool here.
Many home remedies can be used with traditional back pain treatments. If you have questions about these, talk with your doctor.
Heat and ice therapy
Ice packs may relieve discomfort and
Warm compresses may also relieve pain when inflammation has gone down. Consider switching between heat and cold.
Exercises to improve posture and strengthen the back and abdominal muscles — called the core muscles — are a treatment option that should be strongly considered.
This treatment often involves:
- improving posture
- using proper lifting techniques
- strengthening core muscles
- stretching muscles to improve flexibility
A physical therapist can teach you how to perform these types of exercises at home.
Capsaicin is the ingredient in peppers that makes them hot. These ingredients may desensitize the nerves in the affected area and decrease the pain you feel.
Home remedies may be highly effective at reducing back pain. Learn more about how to use them and how they work.
Strained muscles often cause back pain. Strain commonly occurs with incorrect lifting of heavy objects and sudden awkward movements.
Strain can also result from overactivity. An example is the sore feeling and stiffness that occurs after a few hours of yard work or playing a sport.
Vertebrae are the interlocking bones stacked on top of one another that make up the spine. Discs are areas of tissue that cushion the spaces between each vertebra. Disc injuries are a
Sometimes these discs can bulge, herniate, or rupture. Nerves can get compressed when this happens.
Herniated discs can be very painful. A bulging disc pressing on the nerve that travels from your back and down your leg can cause sciatica or irritation of the sciatic nerve. Sciatica can be experienced in your leg as:
Spinal osteoarthritis is also a potential cause of back pain. It’s caused by damage and deterioration in the cartilage of joints in your lower back.
Over time, this condition can lead to narrowing of the spinal column, or spinal stenosis.
Loss of bone density and thinning of the bone, called osteoporosis, can lead to small fractures in your vertebrae. These fractures can cause serious pain and are referred to as compression fractures.
Other causes of back pain
There are many other potential causes of back pain, but most are rare. Be sure to see a doctor if you experience regular back pain that does not go away.
After ruling out the more common causes of back pain, your doctor will perform tests to determine if you have a rarer cause. These can
- one of the vertebrae moving out of place and onto a nearby vertebra, called degenerative spondylolisthesis
- loss of nerve function at the lower spinal cord, called cauda equina syndrome (a medical emergency)
- fungal or bacterial infection of the spine, such as Staphylococcus, E. coli, or tuberculosis
- cancer or noncancerous (benign) tumor in the spine
- kidney infection or kidney stones
Back pain can have many symptoms, including:
- a dull, aching sensation in the lower back
- a stabbing or shooting pain that can radiate down the leg to the foot
- an inability to stand up straight without pain
- a decreased range of motion and reduced ability to flex the back
The symptoms of back pain, if due to strain or misuse, are usually short lived but can last for days or weeks.
Back pain is chronic when symptoms have been present for
Back pain symptoms that may indicate a serious problem
See your doctor if back pain doesn’t improve within 2 weeks of developing. There are times when back pain can be a symptom of a serious medical problem.
Symptoms that can indicate a more serious medical problem are:
- loss of bowel or bladder control
- numbness, tingling, or weakness in one or both legs
- back pain after trauma (injury), such as a fall or a blow to the back
- intense, constant pain that gets worse at night
- unexplained weight loss
- pain associated with a throbbing sensation in the abdomen
Let your doctor know if you have any of these symptoms.
A physical exam is
- ability to stand and walk
- spine’s range of motion
- leg strength
- ability to detect sensations in your legs
If a serious condition is suspected, your doctor might order other tests,
- blood and urine tests to check for underlying conditions
- X-rays of the spine to show alignment of your bones and check for breaks
- CT scan or MRI scan to assess your discs, muscles, ligaments, nerves, and blood vessels
- bone scan to look for abnormalities in the bone tissue
- electromyography (EMG) to test nerve signals
These tips can help ease back pain when it happens. They can also help you prevent back pain in the first place.
Heavy briefcases, laptop bags, suitcases, and purses can add unnecessary stress and strain to your neck and spine.
Try to reduce what you need to carry, and use bags that distribute the weight more evenly, such as a backpack. If you can, use a bag with wheels to keep weight off your back entirely.
Work your core
The muscles in and around your abdomen and back help keep you upright and carry you through your physical activities. Strengthening them can also reduce the chances of pain, strain, or damage to your back.
Plug strength training workouts with a core focus into your regular fitness routine a few times a week.
Improve your posture
Poor posture can put unnecessary pressure and strain on your spine. Over time, this
Regularly remind yourself to roll back rounded shoulders and sit upright in your chair.
High-heeled shoes are likely to
Doing the same thing every day
If you think these five tips are helpful for preventing back pain, read five more ways to help reduce your chances of hurting your back.
You may have an increased risk for back pain
- work in a sedentary (inactive) environment
- don’t exercise
- engage in high impact activity without stretching or warming up first
- are older
- have obesity
- are a smoker
- have been diagnosed with a specific condition like arthritis
Your mental health also has an effect on your risk of back pain. You may be at a higher risk of back pain if you have a stressful job or have depression and anxiety.
Back pain during each trimester of your pregnancy can be common, and several causes are to blame. However, you should be sure to talk with your doctor about what you’re experiencing, in case the pain may be part of a bigger problem.
Here are a few reasons why you may be experiencing back pain during pregnancy:
Shifting center of gravity
As your baby grows, the center of your body’s “gravity” moves outward. Your spine and back arch to make up for the change in balance. This put extra stress on the lower lumbar spine.
Weight gain can be a healthy part of pregnancy, but even the little bit you’re likely to gain during those 9 months can put more stress on your back and core muscles.
As your body prepares to deliver the baby, it releases hormones that loosen the ligaments that stabilize your pelvis and lumbar spine. These same hormones can cause the bones in your spine to shift, which may lead to discomfort and pain.
Gentle stretches and easy exercises can help ease back pain and prevent future problems.
Here are two exercises you can try. These moves require no special equipment and can be performed anywhere you can access an area of open floor. A yoga mat is recommended but not necessary.
- Lie on the ground with your feet flat on the floor, hip-width apart.
- With your hands by your sides, press your feet into the floor as you slowly lift your buttocks off the ground until your body is in one straight line. Keep your shoulders on the floor.
- Lower down. Rest for 1 minute.
- Repeat 15 times.
- Perform 3 sets.
- Lie on your stomach. Stretch your arms above your head and lengthen your legs straight behind you.
- Slowly lift your hands and feet off the ground. Start about 6 inches off the ground and go higher as you feel comfortable.
- Push through your belly button to lift your legs and arms off the ground. Stop when you feel your lower back contract. To prevent neck strain, keep your head down, looking at the ground.
- Hold your stretched posture for 2 to 3 seconds.
- Return to neutral and relax your muscles.
- Repeat this stretch 10 to 12 times.
If you have back pain and want relief, try these exercises plus five more to help reduce back pain.
Yoga may be thought of as a way to reduce stress, but it
Practice these yoga poses for a few minutes every day. They’re great for beginners. You can add new ones later for more strenuous stretching.
- Lower to the floor and get on your hands and knees.
- Align your body so your hands are directly below your shoulders and your knees are under your hips. Evenly balance your weight on all fours.
- Slowly inhale air and look up at the wall in front of you. Let your stomach drop toward the mat.
- Slowly exhale the air, tuck your chin to your chest, draw your navel toward the back of your spine, and arch your back.
- Turn steps 3 and 4 into a continuous movement and repeat for at least 1 minute.
- Lie on your stomach. Stretch your legs straight behind you. Rest your hands, palms down, beside your shoulders.
- Engage your core, lower back, and buttocks muscles to slowly lift your upper torso and head away from the ground. Use your arms for support only.
- Draw on your lower back and push your belly button into the ground to maintain the stretch.
- Remain in this stretch for 2 to 3 minutes.
- Relax and return to the ground.
As your muscles grow stronger, you can hold this pose longer. Work toward 5 minutes.
If you’re considering yoga to relieve back pain, watch videos of these two yoga poses plus eight more that may be beneficial to get started.
A urinary tract infection (UTI) is an infection in the parts of your body that are responsible for carrying urine. This could be the:
A UTI is
If you have a UTI, you may experience some level of back pain or lower back discomfort. In addition, you may experience:
- frequent urination
- burning during urination
- bloody urine
- cloudy urine
- urine with a strong odor
- feeling an urgent need to urinate
- producing little urine despite feeling intense pressure
UTIs can be treated with antibiotics. Once treatment begins, symptoms including back pain should resolve quickly.
Frequent urination and back pain can be caused by other conditions too. Read more about each of them and how they can be diagnosed.
Back pain is a common ailment, and the older you get, the more likely you are to experience it. In fact, the majority of Americans will cope with back pain at some point in their lives. For a small percentage, back pain may become chronic.
With treatment, most episodes of back pain will resolve on their own. Occasionally, you will need help from your doctor in the form of prescription medication or injections. Surgery may be an option in very rare cases.
The good news for people who’ve experienced back pain and want to avoid another bout with it is that you can take steps to prevent back pain. Daily stretches, yoga, and strength training can help make your back and core muscles stronger and more resilient.