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Acute Low Back Pain


What is acute low back pain?

Acute low back pain is sudden discomfort in your lower back area that lasts for up to 6 weeks. The discomfort makes it difficult to tolerate activity.

What causes or increases my risk for acute low back pain?

Conditions that affect the spine, joints, or muscles can cause back pain. These may include arthritis, spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal column), muscle tension, or breakdown of the spinal discs. The following increase your risk of back pain:

  • Repeated bending, lifting, or twisting, or lifting heavy items
  • Injury from a fall or accident
  • Lack of regular physical activity
  • Obesity, pregnancy
  • Smoking
  • Aging
  • Driving, sitting, or standing for long periods
  • Bad posture while sitting or standing

How is acute low back pain diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your medical history and examine you. He may ask when you last had low back pain and how it started. Show him where you feel the pain and what makes it feel better or worse. Tell him about the type of pain you have, how bad it is, and how long it lasts. Tell him if your pain worsens at night or when you lie down on your back.

How is acute low back pain treated?

The goal of treatment is to relieve your pain and help you tolerate activity. Most people with acute lower back pain get better within 4 to 6 weeks. You may need any of the following:

  • Medicines:
    • Acetaminophen decreases pain. It is available without a doctor's order. Ask how much to take and how often to take it. Follow directions. Acetaminophen can cause liver damage if not taken correctly.
    • NSAIDs help decrease swelling and pain. This medicine is available with or without a doctor's order. NSAIDs can cause stomach bleeding or kidney problems in certain people. If you take blood thinner medicine, always ask your healthcare provider if NSAIDs are safe for you. Always read the medicine label and follow directions.
    • Prescription pain medicine may be given. Ask your healthcare provider how to take this medicine safely.
    • Muscle relaxers decrease pain by relaxing the muscles in your lower spine.

What can I do to prevent low back pain?

  • Use proper body mechanics.
    • Bend at the hips and knees when you pick up objects. Do not bend from the waist. Use your leg muscles as you lift the load. Do not use your back. Keep the object close to your chest as you lift it. Try not to twist or lift anything above your waist.
    • Change your position often when you stand for long periods of time. Rest one foot on a small box or footrest, and then switch to the other foot often.
    • Try not to sit for long periods of time. When you do, sit in a straight-backed chair with your feet flat on the floor. Never reach, pull, or push while you are sitting.
  • Do exercises that strengthen your back muscles. Warm up before you exercise. Ask your healthcare provider the best exercises for you.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Ask your healthcare provider how much you should weigh. Ask him to help you create a weight loss plan if you are overweight.

How can I take care of myself if I have low back pain?

  • Stay active as much as you can without causing more pain. Bed rest could make your back pain worse. Start with some light exercises such as walking. Avoid heavy lifting until your pain is gone. Ask for more information about the activities or exercises that are right for you.
  • Ice helps decrease swelling, pain, and muscle spams. Put crushed ice in a plastic bag. Cover it with a towel. Place it on your lower back for 20 to 30 minutes every 2 hours. Do this for about 2 to 3 days after your pain starts, or as directed.
  • Heat helps decrease pain and muscle spasms. Start to use heat after treatment with ice has stopped. Use a small towel dampened with warm water or a heating pad, or sit in a warm bath. Apply heat on the area for 20 to 30 minutes every 2 hours for as many days as directed. Alternate heat and ice.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • You have a fever.
  • You have pain at night or when you rest.
  • Your pain does not get better with treatment.
  • You have pain that worsens when you cough or sneeze.
  • You suddenly feel something pop or snap in your back.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate care or call 911?

  • You have severe pain.
  • You have sudden stiffness and heaviness on both buttocks down to both legs.
  • You have numbness or weakness in one leg, or pain in both legs.
  • You have numbness in your genital area or across your lower back.
  • You cannot control your urine or bowel movements.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2016 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.