What is Back Pain?
Acute or short-term low back pain generally lasts from a few days to a few
weeks. Most acute back pain is the result of trauma to the lower back or a
disorder such as arthritis. Pain from trauma may be caused by a sports injury,
work around the house or in the garden, or a sudden jolt such as a car accident
or other stress on spinal bones and tissues. Symptoms may range from muscle ache
to shooting or stabbing pain, limited flexibility and range of motion, or an
inability to stand straight. Chronic back pain is pain that persists for more
than 3 months. It is often progressive and the cause can be difficult to
Is there any treatment?
Most low back pain can be treated without surgery. Treatment involves using
over-the-counter pain relievers to reduce discomfort and anti-inflammatory drugs
to reduce inflammation. The goal of treatment is to restore proper function and
strength to the back, and prevent recurrence of the injury. Medications are
often used to treat acute and chronic low back pain. Effective pain relief may
involve a combination of prescription drugs and over-the-counter remedies.
Although the use of cold and hot compresses has never been scientifically proven
to quickly resolve low back injury, compresses may help reduce pain and
inflammation and allow greater mobility for some individuals. Bed rest is
recommended for only 1–2 days at most. Individuals should resume activities as
soon as possible. Exercise may be the most effective way to speed recovery from
low back pain and help strengthen back and abdominal muscles. In the most
serious cases, when the condition does not respond to other therapies, surgery
may relieve pain caused by back problems or serious musculoskeletal injuries.
What is the prognosis?
Most patients with back pain recover without residual functional loss, but
individuals should contact a doctor if there is not a noticeable reduction in
pain and inflammation after 72 hours of self-care. Recurring back pain resulting
from improper body mechanics or other nontraumatic causes is often preventable.
Engaging in exercises that don't jolt or strain the back, maintaining correct
posture, and lifting objects properly can help prevent injuries. Many
work-related injuries are caused or aggravated by stressors such as heavy
lifting, vibration, repetitive motion, and awkward posture. Applying ergonomic
principles — designing furniture and tools to protect the body from injury — at
home and in the workplace can greatly reduce the risk of back injury and help
maintain a healthy back.
What research is being done?
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) and other
institutes of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) conduct pain research in
laboratories at the NIH and also support pain research through grants to major
medical institutions across the country. Currently, researchers are examining
the use of different drugs to effectively treat back pain, in particular,
chronic pain that has lasted at least 6 months. Other studies are comparing
different health care approaches to the management of acute low back pain
(standard care versus chiropractic, acupuncture, or massage therapy). These
studies are measuring symptom relief, restoration of function, and patient
satisfaction. Other research is comparing standard surgical treatments to the
most commonly used standard nonsurgical treatments to measure changes in
health-related quality of life among patients suffering from spinal stenosis.
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