It’s said that nearly 80% of adults will experience lower back pain at some point in their lives. Any time you might’ve gone to the doctor to treat lower back pain, they have likely told you to ice the area, bed rest, and take medication to ease the pain. A doctor might suggest steroid injections or even surgery – while these options might temporarily relieve pain, if there’s an underlying issue, the back pain will inevitably return.
Some low back pain is caused by injury, while other low back pain can be caused by something more serious. If you’re looking at lower back pain from the functional medicine approach, it might be a red flag for a more serious health concern. In this blog, we’ll review what lower back pain is, what red flags to look out for, and what they can mean from a functional medicine perspective.
What is Lower Back Pain, and What Are The Symptoms?
Lower back pain is a general term used to describe discomfort in the lower back region. This area is also known as the lumbar region, and sometimes you’ll hear health care professionals refer to this discomfort as lumbar back pain or lumbago. It can be acute, meaning it comes on suddenly and lasts for a short period of time, or chronic, meaning it persists for weeks, months, or even years.
The symptoms of lower back pain can vary depending on the person, but some common symptoms might include:
- Discomfort or pain in the lower back region
- Muscle stiffness or muscle spasms
- Shooting pain that radiates down the legs (this is known as sciatica)
- Difficulty standing up straight or moving around
What Are Some Causes of Lower Back Pain?
There are many potential dysfunctions of the lower back that result in back pain. A few include muscle strain, ligament sprain, spinal stenosis, herniated disc, degenerative disc disease, and nerve impingement. Here is a deeper look at these dysfunctions:
- Muscle Strain: When the muscles and ligaments supporting the spine get overstretched or torn, this can lead to muscle strain and lower back pain. This is one of the most common causes of lower back pain, especially if you participate in activities that require repetitive motions or put a strain on your back.
- Ligament Sprain: Ligaments are the tough, fibrous tissues that connect bones to other bones. When these ligaments get overstretched or torn, it can lead to pain and inflammation in the area. This is often caused by a sudden movement or twisting of the spine.
- Spinal Stenosis: This is a condition that occurs when the spaces within your spine narrow, which can put pressure on the spinal cord and nerves. This can lead to pain, numbness, or weakness in the legs and lower back.
- Herniated Disc: The discs act as cushions between the vertebrae in your spine. When these discs become damaged or deteriorate, it can cause the inner gel-like substance to leak out and put pressure on the nerves. This can lead to pain, numbness, or weakness in the legs or lower back. Surgery can be used to widen the spinal canal and relieve pressure on the spinal cord.
- Degenerative Disc Disease: This is a condition that occurs when the discs in your spine begin to break down and degenerate. This can cause chronic pain and stiffness in the lower back.
- Nerve Impingement: This occurs when the nerves in your spine become compressed or pinched. This can lead to severe pain, numbness, or weakness in the legs or lower back.
- Arthritis: This is a condition that causes inflammation of the joints. The most common type of arthritis that affects the spine is osteoarthritis, which can lead to pain and stiffness in the lower back.
Functional medicine takes a look beyond the symptoms at what might be causing the dysfunction that is resulting in pain. This method can not only help with back pain that an individual is experiencing, but also help to strengthen and prevent future injuries or back pain.
What Are Some Red Flags to Look Out For With Lower Back Pain That Could Indicate a More Serious Problem?
In functional medicine, professionals look beyond the symptoms to find the root cause and then work to remedy it. With something as common as lower back pain, there’s a very large range of what it can mean to different people. While some may be experiencing a tender back from walking in shoes that don’t properly support their body weight, others might be experiencing very early signs of a kidney infection. There are several “red flags” that may indicate a more serious condition, such as:
-Severe pain that is not relieved by rest or over-the-counter medication
-Loss of motor control
-Severe immobility or Inability to walk
-Numbness or tingling in groin area
-Pain that worsens with movement
-Numbness, tingling, or weakness in the legs
-Loss of bowel or bladder control
– Unexplained weight loss
If you or someone you know is experiencing any of these symptoms, in addition to lower back pain, it’s best to seek medical attention as soon as possible.
10 Tips to Prevent Lower Back Pain
Not all back pain is caused by a serious injury. Everyday activities can cause our backs to be sore or tender. There are a few preventative measures to protect your back, relieve pain, or avoid chronic lower back pain.
- Use proper body mechanics when lifting, bending, and twisting: Avoid putting all the strain or weight on your back to avoid tears, protect the spinal column, and prevent additional lower back pain symptoms.
- Maintain good posture by keeping your head up, shoulders back, and abdominal muscles pulled in: Good posture is a great healthy habit to have. It helps to improve blood flow, which in turn, helps maintain muscle support, helps relieve pressure on the sacroiliac joints, and promotes healthy blood vessels, and healthy ligaments, muscles, and tissues.
- Sit in chairs with good lumbar support and avoid sitting for long periods of time: This can be difficult, considering how many people sit all day for work. But adding extra lumbar support and finding time throughout the day to stand/stretch, can make a world of a difference.
- Get regular exercise to maintain flexibility and muscle strength: This is important for people of all ages! Exercise not only helps with weight loss/management, but also strengthens the core muscles that support your back. Your lumbar spine plays a crucial role in supporting the weight of your upper body. If the muscles are not strong enough to protect the spinal joints, then the added strain can lead to back pain. Maintaining a healthy weight can help with chronic back pain.
- Quit smoking: Smoking decreases blood flow, which can lead to degeneration of the discs and facet joints.
- Maintain a healthy weight: Being overweight or obese puts extra strain on the back and can worsen chronic pain.
- Wear comfortable, low-heeled shoes with good arch support: This is especially important for women. Wearing high heels changes the alignment of your spine and can cause lower back pain.
- Sleep on a mattress that is comfortable and supportive: A mattress that is too soft or too hard can cause back pain.
- Use a pregnancy pillow when sleeping on your side during pregnancy: This helps support the weight of your growing belly and takes some pressure off your back.
- Practice stress-reduction techniques: Stress can lead to muscle tension, which can worsen back pain.
5 Tips for Relieving Lower Back Pain at Home
If you do experience lower back pain, here are some steps you can take to reduce the pain.
- Use an ice pack to reduce inflammation
- Try heat therapy to soothe muscles
- Take over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen
- Use a lumbar support pillow when sitting or lying down
- Perform gentle stretching exercises each day.
From a Functional Medicine Perspective, What Could Lower Back Pain Mean?
Functional medicine works to find the root cause, not just treat the symptoms. First, the doctor will conduct a physical exam and then follow it with other tests to identify any factors that might contribute to the pain diagnosed.
Lower back pain can be caused by a variety of health issues we might not even realize have anything to do with our back. Some include:
- Structural imbalance: Years of misaligned or weakened areas of the body can build up and lead to lower back pain. Compression on the soft tissues or pressure on the spinal nerves can contribute to chronic low back pain. For example, a common cause of lower back pain is actually the result of tight hip flexors.
- Bone health or Calcium regulation: Bone health is reliant on producing calcium for the blood and preventing it from entering the arteries. Vitamin deficiencies can affect bone density, leading to arthritis, chronic back pain, and more. If the body has vitamin and mineral deficiencies that go unnoticed, it can lead to various musculoskeletal and skin diseases.
- Sciatica: When it’s the sciatic nerve, back pain runs from the buttocks, near the lumbar spine, and down the leg.
- Inflammation: Inflammation is an adaptive mechanism used when the body has to deal with an infection, injury, or disease of some sort. If an issue in the body persists, then the inflammation itself can become a problem, similar to systemic inflammation.
- Adrenal Fatigue: If we exhaust our cortisol reserves, the body can experience lower back pain.
- Hormone & Neurotransmitters: Similar to cortisol, estrogen, insulin, testosterone, etc., can all have effects on the pain felt in the lower back.
- Gut Health: When talking about systemic inflammation, how could we forget about the gut? Issues like “Leaky Gut Syndrome” can affect the body’s ability to digest food and absorb the proper nutrients. Read more about why gut health is so important here.
- Depression or Anxiety: This back pain could be a result of the nervous system rather than any injuries to the area. Studies have shown that pain is perceived differently in the mind. In some cases, treating depression or anxiety has greatly reduced, if not eliminated, back pain altogether.
What are the Treatment Options
If you’re experiencing lower back pain, it’s important to seek out a medical professional for a proper diagnosis. Here they can rule out any serious underlying health condition, help with temporary pain relief, and find a treatment plan that works best for your situation.
There are many treatments for lower back pain including chiropractic care, acupuncture, physical therapy, and massage therapy. In some cases, surgery may be necessary to correct the underlying problem. For example, surgery on the spinal canal, called a spinal laminectomy, can relieve pressure on the spinal cord to help alleviate back pain.
Talk to Thrive! Wellness Center Today
Low back pain is one of the most common medical problems in the United States. It’s the leading cause of job-related disability and a major reason for missed workdays. In fact, back pain is one of the most common reasons for doctor visits. However, there are some warning signs that may signal a more serious problem. Functional Medicine gets to the root cause of the issue, rather than just providing pain medication for the symptoms. Listen to Dr.Kelley’s Podcast about Functional Medicine to learn more.
If you are experiencing lower back pain or have more questions, speak to our team at Thrive! Wellness Center here or by calling (727) 381-3456 today.