Acute low back pain is defined as low back pain present for up to six weeks. It may be experienced as aching, burning, stabbing, sharp or dull, well-defined, or vague. The intensity may range from mild to severe and may fluctuate. The pain may radiate into one or both buttocks or even into the thigh/hip area.
Low back pain may begin following a strenuous activity or trauma, but a clear causative incident is often difficult to identify. The pain may begin suddenly or develop gradually.
What causes low back pain?
The exact source of acute low back pain is often difficult to identify. In fact, there are numerous possible pain producers including muscles, soft connective tissue, discs, ligaments, joint capsules and cartilage, and blood vessels. These tissues may be pulled, strained, stretched or sprained. Annular tears (small tears that occur in the outer layer of the intervertebral disc) can initiate severe pain. Even if the actual tissue damage is minor, and likely to repair quickly, the pain experienced may be intense.
How long will an episode of low back pain last?
The good news is that even if the exact source of pain is not determined, usually the acute pain subsides over time. The originally irritated tissue heals. Fifty percent of episodes nearly completely resolve within two weeks, and 80% by six weeks. Unfortunately, the duration and severity of a single episode cannot be predicted based on the onset, location of pain, or even the initial severity.
How should acute low back pain be managed?
Some of the best advice for treatment for acute low back pain is to continue to remain active “as tolerated.” Continuing to perform everyday activities may seem counterintuitive, and the natural inclination may be to stay in bed or “freeze,” to guard and avoid activity. Yet, activity keeps blood and nutrients flowing to the affected area, inhibiting inflammation and reducing muscular tension. Many individuals with low back pain find that they can perform their usual, but more controlled cardiovascular activities, such as walking, in spite of the pain and often feel better after the activity. More vigorous or uncontrolled activities such as weight lifting or competitive or contact sports are inadvisable while pain is severe. Local application of heat or ice can temporarily reduce pain and heat may facilitate movement.
The mainstay of medications are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) and acetaminophen. Either of these can be associated with side effects, and should be used as directed by a physician.
Muscle relaxants and narcotics have a lesser role in the care of acute low back pain, and should only be taken for short durations due to abundant side effects, development of tolerance, and eventual increased sensitivity of pain fibers with prolonged usage.
Schedule an appointment
If you or a loved one is suffering from acute low back pain, contact our office to schedule an appointment.