The lower back is an intricate structure of interconnected and overlapping elements:
- Tendons and muscles and other soft tissues
- Highly sensitive nerves and nerve roots that travel from the lower back down into the legs and feet
- Small and complex joints
- Spinal discs with their gelatinous inner cores.
An irritation or problem with any of these structures can cause lower back pain and/or pain that radiates or is referred to other parts of the body. Pain from resultant lower back muscle spasms can be severe, and pain from a number of syndromes can become chronic.
While lower back pain is extremely common, the symptoms and severity of lower back pain vary greatly. A simple lower back muscle strain might be excruciating enough to necessitate an emergency room visit, while a degenerating disc might cause only mild, intermittent discomfort.
Identifying the symptoms, along with an accurate diagnosis of the underlying cause of the pain, is the first step in obtaining effective pain relief.
Lower Back Pain Causes by Age
Certain causes of lower back pain have a tendency to occur more often in younger individuals versus older adults:
- Younger adults (e.g. 30 to 60 year olds) are more likely to experience back pain from the disc space itself (e.g. lumbar disc herniation or degenerative disc disease) or from a back muscle strain or other soft tissue strain.
- Older adults (e.g. over 60) are more likely to suffer from pain related to joint degeneration (e.g. osteoarthritis or spinal stenosis) or from a compression fracture.
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When to Seek Immediate Treatment for Lower Back Pain
Most cases of low back pain do not require urgent care, but patients should seek a doctor immediately if they experience low back pain as a result of severe trauma, or if low back pain is accompanied by any of the following:
- Fever and chills
- Unexplained recent weight loss, or recent weight loss due to trauma
- Significant leg weakness
- Sudden bowel and/or bladder incontinence - either difficulty passing urine or having a bowel movement, or loss of control of urination or bowel movement (cauda equina syndrome)
- Severe, continuous abdominal pain (abdominal aortic aneurysm)
In cases where immediate treatment is a required, physicians will investigate possible serious causes of the pain, including infection, tumor or fracture.