You’ve been invited to play in a weekend softball league, and you’re super excited–but by the end of the first weekend, your lower back is hurting so much you can’t walk. Welcome to lumbago, also known as lower back pain.

What you’ve been calling an aching back might be something more serious–but how can you tell what qualifies as lumbago and how can you prevent and treat it, so it doesn’t keep you off the field? Today, we’re providing a thorough understanding of lower back pain and walking you through treatment options. Let’s get started!

Back Pain By a Different Name?

What is lumbago? Lumbago is a term that isn’t used a lot anymore, but it’s used to indicate lower back pain that’s anywhere from mild to severe. The pain can impact older people or younger, and it can be mild or acute.

A long time ago, doctors were taught to associate the condition with rheumatism brought on by dampness (if you’ve ever heard a grandparent worry about getting wet, now you know why). We now know quite a bit more about the conditions that cause and worsen lower back pain.

Also known as LBP (lower back pain), this disorder involves the muscles, nerves, and bones of the back. Pain varies from sudden sharpness to dull, constant aching. LBP is typically classified as acute (lasts less than six weeks), sub chronic (lasts six to twelve weeks), or chronic (lasts more than twelve weeks). As many as 90% of people experience complete relief within six weeks, but as many as 60% of people do not, and their conditions can be further broken down into the following categories:

  • Mechanical (includes most episodes of LBP and does not seek an underlying cause)
  • Non-mechanical
  • Referred pain

To fully understand lumbago and how it might impact you, it’s important to understand a few important principles about back pain. First, pain doesn’t necessarily correlate to the extent of the damage. This means that something like a simple strain can cause severe pain while a herniated disc might be virtually painless. This makes it hard, sometimes, for patients to be motivated enough to get professional help.

It’s also important to understand that diagnosis can be very difficult. Because the back is such a vital and complex community of anatomical structures that impact directly most of the rest of the body and include such diverse structures as nerves, bones, ligaments, and muscles, it can be very difficult for your doctor to fully isolate the precise problem. The brain itself struggles to tell the difference between one structure and another, which is why you will typically struggle to differentiate between a pinched nerve, a herniated disc, or a pulled muscle. All you know is that something hurts!

Do You Have These Symptoms?

The following lumbago symptoms can help you understand if you might have the disorder:

  • Is your spine movement limited, especially when you try to bend forward or lean back?
  • Are you experiencing tense spasms in your muscles, particularly those around your spine?
  • Do you have a stiff back?
  • Do you have pain across your lower back and does it sometimes radiate into your buttocks, the backs of your thighs, or your groin?
  • Is your pain worse upon movement?
  • Are you experiencing lumbago with sciatica, which is a tingling sensation or numbness in your back, buttocks, or legs?
  • Are you experiencing a change in posture or a limp due to severe pain or a spasm?

Special note: if you suddenly cannot control your bladder or bowels or if your lower back or legs suddenly become numb or weak, contact your doctor or emergency personnel immediately! You should also get checked out immediately if you suffer from backaches and find you have less strength in one or both legs. These symptoms indicate you might have experienced damage in your spine, such as a compressed spinal cord. Early treatment is important to prevent further damage.

What Causes Lumbago?

This is the million dollar question, and frankly, doctors don’t always have the answer. However, we do know that are three main types of causes behind the back pain you might be experiencing. They include:

1. Muscle or Ligament Strain

A strain happens when a muscle has been stretched beyond its limit and tears. These micro tears can be repaired by your body itself but typically take time and rest–and can be very painful. A sprain takes place when there has been too much stretching and it has impacted your ligaments, the soft tissues that connect your bones.

Common reasons for these types of overstretching are lifting something heavy (especially while your spine is twisting), sudden movements (such as a fall), poor posture, and sports injuries, particularly those that involve twisting (tennis) or large forces (American football).

2. Chronic Conditions

Your pain might have shown up on the softball field, but that doesn’t mean that’s where it was caused. If you’re experiencing chronic pain, it might be as a result of one of the following chronic conditions:

  • Lumbar herniated disc, where a nerve root is irritated by a lumbar disc that has broken out of place. The ensuing inflammation, nerve compression, and tearing can cause a great deal of pain and will not heal on its own.
  • Degenerative disc disease which occurs when discs dehydrate over time.
  • Spinal stenosis, which is a condition that narrows the area that the nerve roots are located, also known as the spinal canal.
  • Osteoarthritis can occur because of wear and tear on your disc and facet joints. Often associated with aging, this is a slowly progressive disease and causes pain and inflammation in your lower back.
  • Deformity of the back, such as scoliosis, can lead to pain if untreated.
  • Trauma, such as a car accident or severe sports injury can cause acute fractures or dislocations of the spine.

3. Uncommon Causes

In addition to the causes we’ve listed above, infection, tumor, or autoimmune disease could also be causing your lower back pain. Ultimately, it’s important to seek medical help for your symptoms.

Treating Lumbago

Short-term or acute lumbago usually gets better through rest and relaxation and doesn’t require ongoing medical treatment (though having your doctor rule out serious problems is a good idea). Here are some tips for treating it at home:

  • Rest. Stay off your feet and take it easy. Lay on a firm, flat surface if possible. (Note: rest for one or two days is good. If you find yourself needing to be off your feet for more than that, it’s probably something more serious and needs to be treated by a medical professional.)
  • Ice or heat. You can even alternate the two to help relieve pain and swelling.
  • Use painkillers. These can help you relax, which in turn helps your muscles relax. Your doctor may also prescribe muscle relaxers or steroids. Anti-inflammatory drugs (like ibuprofen) are especially helpful and proven to relieve pain. To get best results, make sure you take consistently and regularly as you heal, not just when it hurts.
  • Physical therapy can be very helpful. Your therapist can help you find exercises that enable you to feel better and heal faster, as well as help to prevent further back pain.

If your back pain continues or becomes chronic, you will need to work with a professional. She will help you find and address the underlying causes of your pain and not just treat the symptoms. National recommendations typically don’t involve x-rays or other scans, as these are often of little help. Instead, experts recommend structured exercise programs tailored for you by a physical therapist.

Particularly if you are active or play sports, your therapist is an important partner to help you prepare your body to play again without re-injury. These treatments might last up to twelve weeks but will help your body grow stronger and avoid further pain. Manual therapy might also be helpful. This includes treatments from an osteopath or chiropractor.

To prescribe a treatment plan, your doctor will typically perform a thorough evaluation to observe the movements of your spine, pelvis, and hips. There are other tests that medical professionals can do to determine if you have compressed nerves or if your spine has been compromised in any way. In some cases, x-rays or MRIs will be used to check the health of your discs.

In some cases, surgery might be necessary in the case of spinal stenosis or herniated discs, if you’re experiencing significant pain, leg weakness, or bladder or bowel problems. These two issues, however, seem to be the only issues significantly bettered by surgery. As in every case, however, it’s important to talk through all options with a medical professional you trust and feel comfortable with.  

Lower back pain–also known as lumbago–doesn’t have to keep you from living your life! Whether you play sports professionally or just for fun, understanding lumbago’s symptoms and treatment will help you stay in top shape!

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