Whether it’s from the gym, moving a heavy object, or some other unknown cause, lower back pain is an annoyance we’ve all experienced. It is one of the most common chronic medical conditions experienced by people of all ages.
The good news? Once the cause is identified, lower back pain is easily prevented and treated. Penn Medicine offers an online assessment test to help you learn when it is time to see a doctor for your back pain.
Online Back and Neck Health Assessment Test
Types of lower back pain
Michael Ashburn, MD, MPH, MBA said identifies three common forms of lower back pain:
- Non-specific muscular pain
- Muscle spasms
- Radicular pain
Non-specific Muscular Pain
“By far the most common cause of back pain is non-specific muscular pain, which is basically a muscle strain.” Dr. Ashburn explains. One common symptom to look out for is non-specific, intense muscular pain on one or both sides of the lower back. Non-specific muscular pain may be caused by lifting, twisting, stretching, or any other kind of movement that adds stress to the lower back. It can also be caused by sudden, unexpected movement such as a fall.
Less common than non-specific muscular pain, muscle spasms are also a common manifestation of lower back pain. Muscle spasms occur when the back muscles involuntarily contract. Similarly to non-specific muscular pain, muscle spasms are most often due to bending, heavy lifting or other activities. The injury usually starts with a specific incident, rather than chronic use. “Three out of four people with muscular lower back pain such as muscle spasms can recall a specific time and activity after which they developed their pain,” says Dr. Ashburn.
Radicular pain is another common type of lower back pain that can be caused by two factors:
- Degeneration of the disc, which is the shock absorber for the back
- Pinching of one or more nerve roots
The nature of radicular pain differs slightly from non-specific muscular pain and muscle spasms. “Patients who are experiencing radicular pain will often experience a sharp shooting pain that starts in the back and goes into one or both legs. They also may feel numbness or tingling in their legs,” says Dr. Ashburn. Some radicular pain can also be classified as sciatic nerve pain, a very common and painful condition.
Sciatic Nerve Pain
Sciatica is also a very common type of lower back pain. It is caused by pain affecting the sciatic nerve, a large nerve that runs from the lower back down the back of each leg. What makes sciatic nerve pain unique is that it’s actually a symptom of a larger form of nerve pain – the radicular pain mentioned above. “The sciatic nerve runs from the lower back into both legs,” explains Dr. Ashburn. “The difference between radicular pain and sciatic nerve pain is that radicular pain may begin higher up in the spine and then radiate toward the lower back, whereas sciatic pain is a feeling of intense pain in the lower spine.”
How Lower Back Pain is Diagnosed
The first step for successfully treating lower back pain is to schedule an appointment with your primary care physician. Before the appointment, take note of your symptoms. Primary care physicians may ask specific questions to gain better insight into the underlying cause of your pain.
Questions may include:
- The location of your pain
- Intensity of your pain
- Quality of your pain
- Your medical history including any previous treatments or studies you’ve participated in and how you’ve responded to the treatment(s).
There are many other possible causes of back pain, and careful evaluation is necessary for the physician to identify what the causes are in any individual patient. Once your physician has learned about your symptoms and history with back pain, they will be able to determine the possible cause and make personalized recommendations to get you back to full health.