Question for Betty.

I've been experiencing back pain for about a week now.  Last Sunday I was at work, just standing up, and I shifted weight smoothly from one foot to the other, and felt a sharp shooting pain in my lower back.  It's continued and even worsened lately.  It's so bad now that I can't bend over to tie my own tennis shoes.  I have difficulty just getting my pants on in the morning.  Anything that involves curving my spine forward causes me great pain.  However, curving it backwards doesn't do anything to it.  I don't have any other pains or numbness in my legs or anywhere else.  I've noticed a curvature in by back recently that wasn't always there before either.  It used to be that when I stood up straight, my back was STRAIGHT, but now, it looks like I'm sticking my butt out, when really, I feel like I'm standing up straight.  Can you help me figure out what's wrong?

Betty's Answer.

You may have an acute lower back strain and the change in appearance to your back may be due to an adjustment in posture in response to the pain.

YOU ARE NOT ALONE as Low back pain is one of the most common disorders in the United States; with about 80% of people having at least one episode of low back pain. 

The vast majority of people with back pain improve within 4 to 6 weeks without treatment.  It is important to see a healthcare provider if the pain is not improving in two to three weeks.

There are many causes of back pain such as muscle or ligament strains, degenerating disc, arthritis, lumbar spinal stenosis, infection or a tumor. 

If you have any of the following you should see a healthcare provider for advice:

     Pain that does not go away, even at night or when lying down.

     Weakness in one or both legs; pain which spreads into the lower leg.

     Problems with bladder, bowel or sexual function.

     Back pain with unexplained fever or weight loss.

     History of cancer, a weakened immune system, osteoporosis, or steriod use.

     Back pain resulting from a fall or an accident.

     Back pain which is not improving within 2 to 3 weeks.

If medication is needed for pain, aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen taken on a regular basis for three to five days may help. 

It is important to walk and resume normal daily activities as quickly as possible after a low back strain. As symptoms begin to resolve, there is significant benefit from doing exercise that increases back flexibility and strengthens supporting muscles.  Walking, swimming, stationary bicycling, and low-impact aerobics are helpful. 

Factors that increase your risk of developing back pain include smoking, obesity, older age, female gender, physically strenuous work, sedentary work, stress, anxiety and depression.

There are a number of ways to prevent low back pain from returning. Regular exercise that improves cardiovascular fitness can be combined with specific exercises to strengthen the muscles of the hips and torso.  Abdominal muscles are particularly important in supporting the lower back and preventing back pain.  Avoidance of activities that involve repetitive bending or twisting and high impact activities that increase stress in the spine. 

Bend and lift correctly, with knees bent and abdominal muscles tightened.

Take a break from sitting or standing for long periods. 

To check your posture:

1.  Stand with your back to a wall. Press your heels, backside, shoulders, and head against the wall.  If you feel any space between the small of your back and the wall, your back is arched too much.

2.  Move your feet forward and bend your knees so that your back slides a few inches down the wall.  Now tighten your abdominal and buttocks muscles so that you can flatten your lower back against the wall.

3.  Hold this position and "walk" your feet back so that you slide up the wall.

4.  Standing straight, walk away from the wall and around the room.

5.  Return to the wall and back up to it to make sure you've kept proper posture.

For more information or if you are continuing to have back pain, see your healthcare provider or make an appointment with the Student Health & Counseling Center for evaluation.