Low Back Pain Facts

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Male rubbing his lower back

Do you have a sore back? Low back pain can range from mild, dull, and annoying to persistent, severe, and disabling. It can restrict mobility and interfere with a person's daily activities.

Low back pain is one of the most significant health problems we face today. Consider these statistics from the National Institutes of Health: 70 to 85 percent of all people have back pain at some time in their life. Americans spend at least $50 billion each year on the condition, and it's the most common cause of job-related disability and a leading contributor to missed work.

Even with today's technology, the exact cause of low back pain is usually hard to pinpoint. In most cases, back pain may be a symptom of many different issues, including any/several of the following:

  • Overuse, strenuous activity, or improper use (such as repetitive or heavy lifting, or exposure to vibration for prolonged periods of time)

  • Trauma

  • Injury

  • Fracture

  • Degeneration of vertebrae (often caused by stresses on the muscles and ligaments that support the spine, or the effects of aging)

  • Infection

  • Abnormal growth (tumor)

  • Obesity, which causes increased weight on the spine and pressure on the discs

  • Poor muscle tone in the back

  • Muscle tension or spasm

  • Sprain or strain

  • Ligament or muscle tears

  • Joint problems (such as spinal stenosis)

  • Smoking

  • Protruding or herniated (slipped) disk

  • Disease (such as osteoarthritis or spondylitis)

In addition to a complete medical history and physical exam, diagnostic procedures for low back pain may include the following. However, during many initial assessments and exams, specialized tests aren't recommended.

  • X-ray: A diagnostic test that produces images of internal tissues, bones, and organs onto film.

  • Computed tomography scan (also called a CT or CAT scan): A diagnostic imaging procedure that uses a combination of X-rays and computer technology to produce cross-sectional images (often called slices), both horizontally and vertically, of the body. A CT scan shows detailed images of bones, muscles, fat, and organs.

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): A diagnostic procedure that uses a combination of large magnets, radiofrequencies, and a computer to produce detailed images of organs and structures within the body.

  • Radionuclide bone scan: A nuclear imaging technique that uses a very small amount of radioactive material, which is injected into the bloodstream to be detected by a scanner. This test shows blood flow to the bone and cell activity within the bone.

  • Electromyogram (EMG): A test to evaluate nerve and muscle function.

Specific treatment for low back pain may include the following: a change in your activities, medication, physical rehabilitation and/or therapy, occupational therapy, weight loss, quitting smoking, spine surgery, or assistive devices such as mechanical back supports.

You can take steps to prevent low back pain. Your doctor can teach you correct lifting techniques and how to maintain correct posture while sitting, standing, and sleeping. Exercising regularly, staying at a healthy weight, and avoiding smoking all help. Reducing emotional stress also may be beneficial, since it can cause muscle tension.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 May 3
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

  1. American Academy of Family Physicians. http://familydoctor.org/online/famdocen/home/common/pain/treatment/117.html

  2. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/backpain/detail_backpain.htm