Resource Center


Who is most likely to develop low back pain?

Nearly everyone has low back pain (LBP) at some time. Men and women are equally affected. LBP occurs most often between ages 30 and 50, due in part to the aging process but also as a result of inactive lifestyles with too little exercise.

Is back pain serious?

Most of the time, low back pain is not serious and is not the result of a back/spine injury. Back pain is a symptom, not a disease. Very serious low back problems are rare. Although on occasion someone will be able to pinpoint when their back started to hurt or ache, most people don't actually remember hurting their back. Your spine and the body parts that work with it are very strong, so it's difficult to have a serious back injury.

What causes low back pain?

The exact cause of low back pain can be hard to pin point at times. Maybe you helped your neighbor move and used your back more than you are used to or possibly you lifted something the wrong way. You may have stood or sat too long in one position so now the muscles are stiff and sore. If you work out for the first time in a while and do a lot of push-ups, you expect your upper arm muscles to be sore the next day. The same goes for your back muscles.

Your back pain may have come on gradually during the day or you may have noticed it during the night or when you woke up. Your back may feel stiff and sore or you may have sharp or burning pain. Sometimes people have tingling, or a ‘pins-and-needles’ feeling. Up to 85 percent of people will experience back pain at some time in their lives – it is that common! The good news is it usually only lasts for a few days or weeks. Every now and then, it lasts a bit longer, up to four or six weeks, but that's less common. Back pain that lasts 12 weeks or less is considered "acute" pain. When it lasts longer than 12 weeks, back pain is considered “chronic”.

What are my options?

Actions you can take:

  • Most back pain resulting from minor strains can be resolved with over-the-counter medicines and simple self-treatment.
  • If the pain gets better as time passes, or the pain is not the result of a serious injury, then successful low back treatment by yourself is possible.
  • Avoid the use of bed rest and prolonged inactivity.
  • Use the exercises in this booklet to build strength in your back, stomach and abdomen.
  • Stay active, keep moving.

When should I see a doctor for pain?

In most cases, it is not necessary to see a doctor for back pain because the pain usually goes away with or without treatment. However, a trip to the doctor is probably a good idea if you have numbness or tingling, if your pain is severe and doesn't improve with medications and rest, or if you have pain after a fall or an injury.

It is also important to see your doctor if you have pain along with any of the following problems:

  • Trouble urinating
  • Weakness
  • Pain, or numbness in your legs
  • Fever
  • Unintentional weight loss

Such symptoms could signal a serious problem that requires treatment soon.

Seek immediate attention from your health care provider if you have any of the following with back pain:

  • Difficulty controlling your bladder or bowels
  • Loss of sensation in the groin area or between your legs
  • Pain following a fall or impact to the back
  • Severe leg pain down both legs, weakness, tingling, numbness, or inability to move
  • Pain that is steadily increasing over several hours
  • Chills, fever, or night sweats
  • Difficulty with balance or coordination

Which type of doctor should I see?

Many different types of providers treat back pain, from family physicians to doctors who specialize in disorders of the nerves and musculoskeletal system. In most cases, it is best to see your primary care physician first. In many cases, he or she can treat the problem. In other cases, your doctor may refer you to an appropriate specialist.

Do I need an X-ray or MRI?

Remaining active and being conservative with X-rays and MRI testing, which can increase exposure to radiation (although minimal), is best. Ninety percent of low back pain is nonspecific. MRIs rarely help detect the cause. Many abnormalities seen on MRI are common in people without low back pain and they may have nothing to do with your pain. MRIs are most useful to determine if you have a serious condition or if surgery is being considered.

How is back pain treated?

Treatment involves using analgesics, reducing inflammation, restoring proper function and strength to the back, and preventing recurrence of the injury. Most low back pain can be treated without surgery. Most patients with back pain recover without residual functional loss.