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Low back pain is something that many of us can relate to. It’s one of the most common reasons that people seek out help from a doctor, and it’s estimated that it impacts about one-quarter of U.S. adults, at least some of the time (1).

Beyond the physical symptoms, low back pain often impacts many facets of our lives. Emotionally, many people with low back pain suffer from isolating effects when their pain and lack of mobility cause them to miss out on fun with family and friends.

Plus, there’s a sizable financial burden associated with low back pain. It’s been estimated that low back pain in the United States costs a whopping $100 billion annually, two-thirds of which are from the indirect costs of lost wages and reduced productivity when people are in too much pain to work (2).

So, what can we do to address the pain? First, it’s important to understand the cause.

Top Causes of Low Back Pain

There can be many causes of low back pain. The majority of cases are mechanical in nature; things like sprains and strains, sciatica, herniated discs, or skeletal irregularities.

Sometimes, underlying conditions can contribute to low back pain. Arthritis, osteoporosis, endometriosis, and fibromyalgia are all ailments that can all contribute to pain in the back.

Rarely, low back pain can be caused by serious underlying conditions, such as infections, tumors, or kidney stones, all of which require immediate medical attention.

The good news is, most people who seek medical care typically improve within a month or two, particularly when the cause is mechanical.

Addressing Muscular Sprains & Strains

Muscular sprains and strains are one of the most common causes of low back pain. These can be caused by injury or from the simple act of sitting for prolonged periods of time, such as working a desk job.

Applying superficial heat to the low back is one way to get some immediate relief, along with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as Advil or Motrin. While some people want stronger drugs, opioid drugs have not been found to be more effective and are not recommended for the treatment of low back pain (3). However, your physician may prescribe a muscle relaxant or refer you to a physical therapist when additional support is needed.

Beyond these treatments, regularly stretching and strengthening the muscle groups that surround the back can help to prevent injury and alleviate any pain from an existing strain. Some of the best exercises for low back pain include:

  • Stretching the hip flexors: The hip flexors refer to the muscles that connect the top of the femur to the lower back, hips and groin. When the hip flexors are tight, it can pull at your lower back, causing strain. A simple standing stretch where you gently bring your heel to your butt and hold it for 30 seconds can help to keep your hip flexors long and loose.
  • Stretching the hamstrings: Your hamstrings are a large muscle that stretches along the back of your thigh, from the hip to the back of your knee. Lengthening the hamstrings through gradual stretches can help to reduce any stress felt in the lower back. One of my favorite hamstring stretches can be done anywhere there is a clean floor. Simply lay flat on your back and stretch one leg straight up. You can loop a towel around the ball of your foot to help gently stretch the leg up and back, toward the direction of your face.
  • Strengthening the core: The core muscles refer to all the muscle groups around the trunk of your body and your pelvis. These muscles are often neglected, but strengthening them is one of the best ways to avoid injury and prevent or treat low back pain. Plank position is one of the best moves you can do on a daily basis to improve your core strength.

Physical Therapy & Yoga

Physical therapy is often thought of as the gold standard of treatment for low back pain. A good physical therapist not only provides you with a customized stretching and strengthening routine, but can also provide some hands-on support to massage and treat any pain points.

Many of the exercise benefits of physical therapy can also be achieved through a dedicated yoga practice. A recent study found that people who attended 12 weekly yoga classes had similar improvements in their mild low back pain compared to those who received 15 physical therapy visits (4).

Final Thoughts

If you have back pain, you’re ultimately the best judge on when to seek help. But if your pain is intense, has been bothering you for several weeks, or is causing you to miss out on work or other activities, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor. In the meantime, do yourself a favor and incorporate some good stretches and strengthening exercises into your workout routine. Your back will thank you for it.

Wishing you health and wellness,
Dr. Zivich

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