Treating Adults with Low Back Pain


By John J. Vaughan, MD

Low back problems are a very common disorder affecting many adults.  It has been estimated that 50% of working adults experience some symptoms of back pain each year.  Approximately 90% of adults experience back pain at least once during their lifetimes.

In our society, low back pain is an important cause of disability.  It is second only to the common cold as the most common cause of lost work time.  Low back pain is the most common cause of disability for people under the age of 45.  It has been estimated that the yearly cost of treating low back pain is between $16 billion and $46 billion.

Low back pain has many causes.  Most of these conditions improve with time and proper treatment.  Common causes of low back pain include strains and sprains, wear and tear changes in the intervertebral discs, and arthritis.  The pain caused by such conditions tends to worsen with strenuous activity and to improve with rest and relaxation.  Sometimes, but rarely, back pain can be a sign of a serious medical condition such as an infection or a tumor.  Symptoms of such a problem include back pain associated with fever or unexplained weight loss, or pain that is severe when the person lies down.

Most low back problems cause pain in the low back, but sometimes pain may radiate into the thigh and calf, a condition called "sciatica".  This problem may be caused by a herniated disc or bone spurs that are pinching a nerve.

The good news is that approximately 90% of people with acute low back pain recover within one month.  Any severe or persistent backache or sciatica, however, should be brought to the attention of a doctor.  Various options are available for treating the common causes of low back pain and for hastening recovery.  Some of these options include medications (acetaminophen or anti-inflammatories), physical therapy, exercise, and manipulation.  Some cases, however, may require surgical intervention.

Once an acute episode of back pain has resolved, you can avoid future episodes with preventative care.  Exercise is helpful in preventing back problems.  Aerobic conditioning through exercises such as walking, riding a bike, and swimming may prevent further episodes of back pain.

Proper lifting and bending techniques are also helpful in preventing back problems.  When lifting, squat at the hips and knees rather than bending at the back.  Also, when lifting, hold objects close to your body.

With proper back care, pain and disability can be prevented.


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Last Updated: 10/4/03