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Common Symptoms of Low Back Pain

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Updated April 10, 2014

Low back pain affects nearly everyone at one time or another. It can often start without warning and for no apparent reason. The pain typically can last from a few days to many weeks, and it can limit your ability to perform such simple tasks like sitting, rising from a chair, bending, or walking upright.

The low back, or lumbar spine, is composed of 5 bones that are stacked one upon another. Between the bones is a soft spongy disc. The spinal cord and nerves are protected by these bones and discs. Many muscles and ligaments attach to the lumbar spine, giving it a combination of mobility and stability.

There are many nerves that originate in the low back. Some of these nerves stay in the low back, while others travel to other parts of the body, such as the buttock or legs. Therefore, symptoms of low back problems can be felt in many places in the body. This can make diagnosis and treatment of low back problems confusing and difficult.

By monitoring where you feel the pain and understanding how your pain is changing, you can help you doctor or physical therapist prescribe the best treatment for your low back pain.

Here are the most common symptoms of problems coming from the low back:

  1. Central low back pain. Central low back pain is usually caused by small disk bulges or muscular strain in the low back. This type of low back pain usually responds to gentle stretches and postural correction.
  2. Central low back with pain down both legs. This presentation is very typical of a condition called spinal stenosis. This condition occurs when the spinal canal is too narrow and the nerves that travel down the legs are compressed. The common presentation of stenosis is low back and leg pain with walking short distances that is instantly relieved with sitting or bending forward at the waist.
  3. Low back pain to one side or another, but confined to areas above the thigh. This presentation of pain is usually due to muscular strain and should readily respond to postural correction and gentle stretching.
  4. Low back pain to one side that travels down the front of or back of the thigh but does not cross the knee. Usually pain that travels down the thigh is due to a pinched nerve. Nerves can be pinched by either a bulging or herniated disc, an arthritic facet joint, or an overgrowth of bony material, such as a bone spur. Pain may or may not be accompanied by numbness or tingling in the thigh.
  5. Low back pain to one side that travels down the leg and into the calf, ankle, or foot. Pain that travels from the low back to the lower leg is called sciatica. This is considered by many to be the most severe presentation of low back pain. The pain may or may not be accompanied by numbness or tingling. This is usually caused by a pinched nerve from a lumbar disc, an arthritic joint, or a bone spur. Remember, if pain is accompanied by sudden loss of muscular strength or loss of bowel or bladder control, an immediate visit to a physician is necessary.

Most episodes of low back pain are short lived and go away without treatment. Unfortunately, once you have low back pain, you are likely to have more episodes, and occasionally these worsen with the passage of time. It is important to maintain a strong and mobile spine to help prevent worsening low back pain. Basic exercises performed once or twice per day are a good way to keep your spine healthy.

By understanding where your pain is felt and what is possibly causing your pain, you can help your doctor or physical therapist prescribe the best treatment to ensure a positive outcome and a rapid return to normal function.

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