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Acute Low Back Pain

Acute Low back pain - what should you do?

Acute low back pain (LBP) is a common experience that usually gets better with minimal or no intervention.  In our western world, it is a significant personal, social and economic burden.

Your lower back is made up of ligaments, joints, discs and muscles and it is VERY STRONG - it’s a beautiful design that allows us to do many weird and wonderful activities every day with no problems.

Sometimes, something happens and the result is acute low back pain with or without leg symptoms (pain, pins and needles or weakness).  For more information about back pain associated with leg symptoms see our subsequent blog.  Acute low back pain often arises from a simple back sprain secondary to increased mechanical loading and/or a ’pain flare’ associated with some form of lifestyle or psychological stress. We will be discussing how lifestyle factors and psychological stress affect back pain in a subsequent blog as well. 

Occasionally (in less than 1-2% of individuals with LBP) acute low back pain may mean something more serious - a healthcare professional can sort through information gathered during the initial interview and refer for further tests or assessment as appropriate.   It is important that you seek professional care if you have constant pain that has lasted for several weeks that seems worse at night, you feel unwell along with your back pain or you have a significant change in bowel or bladder habits.

The severity of back pain does not always reflect the seriousness of the problem.  This may mean that relatively minor back sprains can cause significant pain and spasms, however bed rest is not recommended.  A physiotherapist can identify whether there is evidence of tissue strain or whether your back pain is a result if a pain flare.  Relaxed movement will help your back settle and it is helpful to remember “motion is lotion”.  Excessive protection of your back and avoiding movement may make the pain worse.   Try and keep to your normal routine as much as you can - it can be helpful to discuss what movement and exercise you should do whilst the acute pain is settling with your physiotherapist. Some over the counter medications may assist in reducing pain so you can keep moving. This needs to be discussed with your pharmacist or GP.

Manual therapy such as joint mobilization / manipulation, massage and even dry needling (acupuncture) has been shown to be effective in some people with acute low back pain. It induces a reduction in pain rather than a biomechanical effect (ie it does not move a stuck joint, put a joint back in place).  It does not work on all people, so if it is not working for you try something else.

Many people wonder if radiological imaging (x-ray, CT, MRI) is warranted, particularly if the pain is severe or if it seems to last longer than is anticipated.  However, imaging for acute low back pain in the absence of trauma (an accident), neurological changes (weakness or loss of reflexes) or other medical warning signs (known as red flags) is not recommended and in some cases, may be detrimental.

Although acute low back pain often resolves spontaneously 30% of people will have a recurrence within 6 months and 40% within 12.  Physiotherapists can assist in addressing possible factors that may contribute to an increased risk of recurrence or the development of more persistent pain.