If you’re plagued with pain in your lower back, you have plenty of company. About 4 in 5 adults experience lower back pain at some point in their lives. Of those, 1 in 5 have symptoms that develop into a long-term issue, with pain lasting more than a year.
Of course, age is an important factor, with people 30 and older having lower back pain most often, but there are other common causes for it too. It is most frequently due to:
- natural bone loss associated with aging
- lack of physical fitness
- being overweight
- on-the-job injuries, including lifting
- bad posture or too much sitting
While being out of shape can contribute to the problem, even well-conditioned athletes and young children experience lower back pain.
A strained muscle in your lower back can be quite painful. These are typical symptoms you might experience:
- your back hurting more when you move, less when you stay still
- pain in your back radiating down into your buttocks but not typically extending into your legs.
- muscle cramps or spasms in your back
- trouble walking or bending
- difficulty standing up straight
A pulled muscle occurs when you tear or overstretch some of the muscle fibers. This can happen if you overwork the muscle or twist it too hard. You will probably notice pain and swelling, and the area will be tender to the touch. You may even notice redness or bruising.
A pinched nerve, or nerve compression, happens when pressure in an area causes the nerve impulses to become partially blocked. You may experience a radiating, burning pain in the affected area.
While a pulled muscle in your lower back could potentially cause a pinched nerve, this can also be caused by a herniated disc in your spine. If you feel radiant pain that extends into your legs, see a doctor right away.
Many people experience muscle pain on only one side of their back. This can be due to compensating for a sore joint, like a hip or knee. For example, if one of your hip joints is weak, you may be putting strain on the opposite side of your lower back to make up for that.
However, lower back pain on your left side may also be due to:
Pain on only one side of your lower back may also be caused by overusing your muscles in a particular way. For example, if your job requires you to repeatedly twist to one side, you may pull the muscles on only one side of your back.
However, if your pain is concentrated in your lower right back, it may also be due to:
- endometriosis or fibroids in women
- testicular torsion in men, in which a blood vessel to the testes becomes twisted
- kidney infection or kidney stones on that side
If you do pull a lower back muscle, there are several things you can help relieve the swelling and pain.
Apply ice or heat
It’s a good idea to ice your back right away to reduce swelling. Don’t apply an ice pack directly to your skin, however. Wrap it in a towel and place it on the sore area for 10 to 20 minutes at a time.
After a few days, you can begin applying heat. Be sure not to leave a heating pad on for more than about 20 minutes at a time and don’t sleep with it.
Over-the-counter (OTC) anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen (Advil) or naproxen (Aleve) can help reduce swelling and inflammation, which in turn helps relieve the pain. While these medications can be very effective, they also have many possible side effects and should not be used for long periods.
Also, be sure your existing medications don’t interact with anti-inflammatories. Look for children’s versions of anti-inflammatories at your pharmacy.
Massage may help reduce your pain and relax tense muscles. There are pain-relieving OTC creams available that can be worked into your skin.
Compressing the muscles can help keep the swelling down, and that in turn helps keep your pain under control.
Effective compression for your lower back will probably require a back brace. Don’t put it on too tightly and don’t leave it on all the time. Your muscles need blood flow to heal.
While bed rest may soothe your pain, it’s not recommended except for brief periods. Try lying on your back with a pillow under your knees or on the floor with your knees bent.
While you may find it helpful to limit your activity for a couple of days after your pull a back muscle, resting for longer than that can actually cause your muscles to become weaker. It’s best to gradually build your strength back up as soon as you can.
There are several exercises you can perform to help your lower back heal. Not only will they help the muscle spasms you may be having, they make your back stronger so it’s not as likely to become injured again.
Here are a few easy stretching exercises. Take them slowly and move gradually into each position. If any of these make your back pain worse, stop and see a doctor.
- Lie on your back with your legs stretched out in front of you.
- Bend your right knee slightly and cross your right leg over the left side of your body.
- Hold it in such a way that you feel gentle stretching throughout your back.
- Hold for 20 seconds, then do it on the other side.
- Repeat 3 times.
- Lie on your back with your feet pointed upward.
- Wrap your hands around one of your shins and gently pull your knee up to your chest while stretching your chin down to your chest.
- Hold for 20 seconds or until your feel your muscles loosen, then do it on the other leg.
- Repeat 3 times.
Hump/slump (or cat-cow pose)
- Kneel on a flat surface with your hands on the floor directly under your shoulders and your knees beneath your hips.
- Exhale and gently let your back curve downwards.
- Inhale and arch your back upwards.
- Hold each position for about 10 seconds.
- Repeat 10 times.
While lower back pain is common and is usually not an emergency, get medical attention right away if you experience any of these symptoms:
- abdominal throbbing
- difficulty maintaining balance or walking
- severe pain that continues for more than a few days
- nausea or vomiting
- chills and fever
- weight loss
- overall weakness
- pain that radiates into your legs, especially past your knees
You should limit normal activity for the first few days after your injury but resume it as soon as you can after that time. Wait a few weeks before going back to an exercise regimen or sport.
Most people will be fully recovered within two weeks of the injury, but if the pain isn’t getting better after a week’s time, see a doctor.
There are several things you can do to prevent straining your lower back, some that help strengthen it and others that are precautionary. These include:
While most people will have pain in their lower backs at some point, these injuries usually heal within several days. You can help expedite the healing process by gentle stretching, applying ice packs and using OTC topical creams and oral medication.
Regularly exercising to help strengthen your back muscles can help prevent repeated back injuries.
However, if you pull a muscle in your lower back and your pain doesn’t go away after several days, if you experience nerve tingling in your legs and feet, or if you have other symptoms like fever and weakness, see a doctor.