Fortunately for most people, majority of the lower back pains are not serious. Most pains will disappear within a week. Some pains do linger on but the pains could be controlled by massage, exercise, having right posture or medications. But in certain cases, some people might experience certain symptoms that need immediate medical assistance.
Lower back pain accounts for one of the top reasons why people are absent from work. It is not surprising that the lower back pain is also the leading cause of disability. Thus, it is important to understand our lower back structure and how we can prevent or minimize the risk of back pain.
There are 5 sections in our spinal cord. They are Cervical(C), Thoracic(T), Lumbar(L), Sacrum(S) and Coccyx. When you hear about L1, L2, L3, L4 & L5, these refer to the 5 Lumbar sections of the spine. Similarly, C1 through C7 refers to the Cervical section.
The lumbar section is the most important part of the spinal cord as it is the least supported and yet absorbing all the strains and the weight of the body. This makes this particular spine section most vulnerable to pain and injury compared to other parts of the spine.
Here are some of the more extreme lower back pain causes you need to know about and perhaps seek medical attention.
1. Bulging & Herniated Disc
Disc herniation is a common cause of lower back pain. Also, known commonly as slip disc, these discs act as a ‘shock absorbers’ for our vertebral column that supports the normal curve of the body. Each disc contains a soft center inside their outer layer.
As we aged, the discs becomes more fragile and loses its water content. When the disc is damaged or gets ‘deformed’, it is pushed out of its position. These protruding or bulging disc sometimes presses on our nerves and we feel pain, weakness or numbness.
On the other hand, a herniated disc forms when the soft center extends out from the outer layer (think of it somewhat like rupture) and presses on the spinal nerve. A herniated disc may have started out as a bulging disc but because of pressure, a rupture happened. This rupture disc compresses the nerve root causing us to feel pain, numbness and weakness.
Sciatica nerve pain
There are many people who are dealing with sciatica, myself included. Sciatic is the nerve that originates from the spinal cord and supplies the muscles of the leg. It often described as the pain felt down the back of the thigh and sometimes down to the feet. This is caused by the herniated disc compressing on the Sciatic nerve.
Unfortunately, there seemed to be no cure for this nerve pain but there are several pain relief treatments available, such as these Sciatica treatments.
Cauda Equina Syndrome (CES)
This serious spinal issue affects the lower back nerves called Cauda Equina nerves. These nerves are linked with our legs and feet as well as pelvic organs. Some of the symptoms includes:
- Extreme low back pain,
- pain, tingling or weakness in 1 or both legs,
- sudden inability to control bladder or bowel movements.
Once a person is diagnosed with this symptom, immediate surgery has to be done to prevent paralysis of the legs and other pelvic organs, for example bladder, bowel and sex organs.
2. Accidents/ Falls
A spinal bone fracture can cause the bone fragments to damage your nerves. Usually, the symptoms are painful body movements.
If fracture affects the spinal nerves, we may experience pain and weakness in their limbs as well as loss of bladder/bowel control.
The top causes of Vertebral Compression Fracture are
- Vehicle accident
- Violent acts
- Bone insufficiency, ex osteoporosis
As we aged, our bones density becomes less dense and they get weaker. These brittle bones are prone to fractures. Usually, we do not show any symptoms until the bone fractures.
Some of the common risk factors for Osteoporosis includes calcium deficiency, lack of exercise, smoking as well as Vitamin D deficiency.
Doing an x-ray or CT scan helps to diagnose our spine structure and if there are any fractures.
A simple DEXA test will help to determine if our bone mass is healthy. If the DEXA results are not what we expected, we can at least start taking preventive care to build up your bone density and reduce your risk of osteoporosis.
4. Degenerative changes
Degenerative changes or osteoarthritis of the spine is also a common cause of lower back pain, especially in aging adults. Unlike Osteoporosis(which is the bone disease), in Osteoarthritis, the joints are the issue.
Again as we aged, the cartilage between the vertebras is being gradually worn out, leaving bone rubbing against bone. With this buffer diminished, this friction may lead to pain, inflammation and sometimes infections.
A quick MRI scan usually explains the issue. Pain relief might be come from light exercise, massaging and medications. For severe pain, injections may be administered. Certain patients may need surgery to stop the arthritis from affecting the nerves.
Low back pain has been ranked one of the most costly health issues around the world.
The Mayo Clinic has a great tool for low back pain diagnostics. Just tick the symptoms and they will provide you with the possible causes. It is a good start but nothing beats seeking a doctor’s opinion.
You should seek a doctor’s advice, if you are experiencing continuous severe low back pain and/or suspect that bone fracture has happened. For example, after a fall or involved a serious trauma experience.
If you are experiencing problems in controlling your bladder/ bowels or weakness in legs, seek medical attention as soon as possible. It might be a more serious case of CES, requiring immediate surgery. This can help in preventing permanent weakness or paralysis.
According to Spine Health, it takes anywhere from 3 months to a year to recover from a back surgery and a success rate of around 80% for their patients’ pain relief.
Take good care of your back!