Conditions, Health & Wellness

Lower Back Pain: Causes and Best Exercises for Prevention

Low back pain is mostly felt only on one side of the body. It can be a constant pain, or it can be an ache that flares up for a time and then subsides. Some patients experience severe and sharp pain that feels like stabbing, others experience a dull and constant ache.

Movement can either alleviate or worsen the pain. It all depends on the causes of the lower back pain, as well as the severity of the condition. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what it means when the pain occurs on your left and right side, as well as causes and how to relieve the pain.

Lower left back pain

Lower left back pain can be severe and sharp, like someone is stabbing you. But it can also be dull and constant. The pain can be caused by muscle strain or a back injury, or even an injury to one or more internal organs. Most commonly, those organs include the kidney and the colon.

Common sources of pain in the lower left back are damage to the soft tissue supporting the spine and certain spinal structures (joints, ligaments, and muscles), problems or disease involving internal organs, minor injuries, or problems with abdominal organs.

Problems with internal organs

As mentioned, in some cases, pain in the lower left back is caused by injury or damage to one or more internal organs, most notably the kidney or the colon. With that in mind, here are the problems that can cause lower left back pain.

Kidney stones

If you suffer from kidney stones, you might feel pain in the lower left back when the stone moves inside the left kidney through the ureters. You can be certain it’s pain caused by kidney problems if there are accompanying symptoms like pain with urination, blood in the urine, nausea, vomiting, or difficulty urinating.

Kidney infection

Another problem with the kidneys that can cause lower back pain is infection. The pain can be either dull or intense. The infection starts in the urinary tract and bladder, and then it spreads to the kidneys. The result is local inflammation and pain in the kidney. You’ll also notice symptoms like nausea, fever, vomiting, and painful or stinging urination. The pain is localized next to the spine above the hip. When you move or apply pressure, the pain will worsen.

Ulcerative colitis

An inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis usually manifests as inflammation of the large intestine, also called the colon. You’ll experience symptoms like rectal pain, weight loss, and diarrhea. Abdominal cramping is another common symptom, resulting in sharp back pain on both sides of the body. You might feel it on the lower left or lower right back.

Pregnancy

One of the side effects of pregnancy is back pain. And it’s logical, given the fact that you’re carrying a lot of weight upfront, causing pressure to the back. As the baby develops in the body of the mother, your body must adjust and accommodate the baby. The pain can vary between dull and constant, and sharp and stabbing. The good news is that for pregnancy lower back pain, exercises for the lower back pain and stretches for lower back pain can help ease the pain.

Gynecological disorders

When you suffer from disorders like fibroids and endometriosis, lower left back pain is to be expected. These conditions are quite common in women. The pain from endometriosis is sporadic, stabbing, and sharp. The cause is excess uterine tissue growing outside the uterus. You’ll also experience symptoms like fatigue, severe pain with menstruation, and abdominal pain.

Fibroids, on the other hand, are benign masses growing in the uterus. They also cause lower left back pain, accompanied by frequent urination, pain with intercourse, and abnormal menstruation.

Pancreatitis

The colon and the kidney are not the only internal organs that can cause lower back pain. Inflammation of the pancreas can also result in pain in the back. The pain starts at your abdomen, and then spreads to the lower left quadrant of the back. Patients usually describe the pain as a dull sensation. Eating foods high in fat can worsen the pain.

Muscle strain causing low back left side pain

As mentioned previously, lower left back pain can be caused either by an injury to an internal organ or by muscle strain on the left side of the spine. The latter is usually a more common cause of low back pain.

Strain on the muscles supporting the spine may come from overuse, or from injuries such as uncomfortable sleeping positions or prolonged standing or sitting. Sometimes, low back pain is caused by injuries such as a herniated disk, which is an injury to the disks supporting the spine.

There’s a difference in the pain you feel when it’s caused by an injury to an internal organ and when it’s caused by muscle strain.

Here are the symptoms of low back muscle strain:

  • Muscle spasms
  • Localized pain in the lower left side of the back
  • Tenderness to the touch
  • Pain that subsides with rest (like sitting in a supported reclining position)
  • The pain can be described as sharp, and it can be severe in some cases
  • If the muscle is moved beyond its restricted range of motion, the pain will increase

Should you see a physician?

In some cases, lower left back pain can be effectively managed with over-the-counter pain relievers. You can also manage the pain with activity modifications (more stretches for lower back pain and exercises for your back), and hot/cold packs. However, in some cases, medical attention is imperative.

While there are situations when the pain is manageable and medical attention is not needed, a general rule of thumb is to check with a physician if the pain follows an accident or an injury. If your pain doesn’t get better on its own, and it interferes with your daily activities, tasks, and functions, you need to consult a doctor.

When the pain is accompanied by other troublesome and progressing symptoms, check with a physician as well.

Lower right back pain

Lower right back pain is in many cases similar to lower left back pain. There are, however, certain conditions that cause only lower right back pain. The causes for the right back pain are mostly similar to the ones of left back pain, including strains and injury to internal organs (kidneys and colon again).

But there are also numerous possible sources of lower right back pain. In terms of internal organs, they are located in the pelvic, abdominal, and mid-back region. The pain usually starts following an irritation or inflammation of an internal organ. Here are the conditions that result in lower right back pain.

Appendicitis

We know that the appendix is located in the lower right hand side of the abdomen. When this organ is inflamed, it starts leaking. In some cases, the appendix might rupture, and cause symptoms like lower right back pain. The symptoms vary, and in most cases, they are chronic. Additional symptoms include nausea, vomiting, and fewer.

Gallbladder inflammation

In most cases, when you have a gallbladder inflammation, you’ll experience severe indigestion (this happens mostly after meals). However, gallbladder dysfunction can also be marked with upper right abdominal and lower right back pain.

Liver problems

There are several problems with the liver, including hepatitis and cirrhosis, that can cause pain in the back. Additional symptoms of liver troubles include fatigue, nausea, lack of appetite, and jaundice. The good news is that unless you’re at risk of cirrhosis (e.g., drinking too much alcohol), liver troubles rarely happen.

Lower back pain causes

As we saw before, there are many causes of lower back pain. Generally speaking, however, they can be classified into several sub-groups.

Most commonly, mechanical issues and soft-tissue injuries are the cause of the problem. The injuries include damage to the intervertebral discs, compression of nerve roots, and improper movement of the spinal joints.

If you think you’re the only one affected by the problem, you’re wrong. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, lower back pain is the most common cause of job-related disability. Their data shows that 80% of Americans will experience lower back pain once in their lifetime.

Lower back pain is more likely to occur in people between 30 and 50 years old. The reason is simple: changes in the body that occur with aging contribute to the problem. As we grow older, the fluid content between the vertebrae in the spine reduces, and discs become irritated more easily.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the causes of lower back pain.

Strains

This is one of the most common causes of lower back pain. The good news is that strains are easily treatable, and last just for a few days. Due to excess activity, muscles and ligaments in the back can stretch or tear (https://www.healthline.com/health/strains). You’ll experience pain and stiffness in the lower back, accompanied by muscles spasms. Rest and physical therapy will help.

Disc injury

While strains are easily treatable, disc injury is a more serious problem. As we mentioned previously, as we grow older, the fluid content between the vertebrae in the spine reduces, making us more prone to injuries. The outside of the disc can either tear or herniate. A herniated disc occurs when the cartilage surrounding the disc pushes against the nerve roots or spinal cord. The result is compression of the nerve root.

These injuries happen when you suddenly lift something heavy and twist your back. And unlike strains, the pain lasts for more than 72 hours. You need special treatment and an exercise regimen afterwards. In some severe cases, disc injury requires surgery.

Sciatica

Very similar to a disc injury, sciatica happens when the herniated disc presses on the sciatic nerve. This is the largest nerve in our body, connecting the spine to the legs. Sciatica, or what most people know as herniated disc, can cause pain in the lower back, in the legs, and in the feet. The pain feels like burning or pins and needles.

Internal organ injury

As we saw earlier, there are a number of organs that can cause lower back pain (e.g., the kidney, the gallbladder, the colon, and some others). In some cases, your lower back pain might be caused by damage, infection, or inflammation to some of the internal organs.

Spinal stenosis

Most of the causes of lower back pain are related to your spine. And that’s logical, since the spine is what holds the back. Spinal stenosis is a condition in which your spinal column narrows. By doing so, it puts pressure on the spinal nerves and spinal cord. It happens due to degeneration of the discs between the vertebrae.

The symptoms include numbness, cramping, and a general feeling of weakness. And you might feel the symptoms anywhere in the body. The symptoms worsen when standing or walking.

Abnormal spinal curvatures

This includes conditions like lordosis, scoliosis, and kyphosis, all of which can cause abnormal curvatures in the spine. They are diagnosed at a young age, usually in children and teenagers. The curvatures place pressure on the muscles, ligaments, vertebrae, and tendons. The result is pain and poor posture.

Risk factors

In addition to all the lower back pain causes, you need to know the risk factors as well. While it might happen to anybody, there are certain risk factors that make people more prone to injuries and strains that result in lower back pain.

  • Your job is usually the first culprit. If it involves pulling, lifting, and other tasks that twist the spine, you’re more prone to back pain. On the other hand, sitting at a desk also comes with the risk of lower back pain, especially if your chair is not comfortable.
  • The bag you’re carrying is another risk factor. While we wear our bag over the shoulder, it’s the lower back that supports the upper body. That includes any extra weight you carry. An overstuffed bag will strain the lower back, especially if you carry it through the entire day. Consider changing to a wheeled briefcase if you carry a heavy load in the bag.
  • An excessive workout, or overdoing it at the gym, is another risk factor. The result is overextended muscles, and you feel lower back pain. If you’re inactive during the workweek, and then workout a lot on the weekend, you should change your lifestyle and workout habits.
  • Being overweight and pregnancy are two other factors. The more weight you have, the more pressure you put on your back to support your body.
  • Last, but not least, your posture is a risk factor. Remember our parents saying “stand up straight”? Well, they were right. Your back can support your weight when you don’t slouch. But when you do slouch, on the other hand, your back can’t provide the same support. In terms of sitting, always sit with a good lumbar support for your back and shoulders, and make sure your feet are resting on a low stool. When you’re standing up, make sure the weight is evenly balanced on both feet.

Lower back pain relief

There are ways to manage your back pain. And the good news is many of the lower back pain relief options are free of charge and natural. Surgery is also an option, but most specialists recommend that you try to get relief naturally. Surgery should be your last resort.

The bed rest debate

Falling asleep and staying asleep is important for managing lower back pain relief. But the trick with sleeping is you have to balance it. People with lower back pain usually suffer from sleep disorder. It’s challenging to fall asleep when you’re in pain.

In most cases, when your back hurts, your initial reaction is to stay in bed and never get out. However, if the problem is a muscle strain, it’s better to return to normal activities as soon as possible. More than a day or two in bed can worsen the pain instead of lessening it.

Another note: it’s crucial that you stay in the right sleep position for lower back pain relief. Sleeping on your back or on your side are the preferred positions.

Massage and meditation

One way to get lower back pain relief is to release your inner endorphins. Now, without sounding too scientific, endorphins are hormones that can act as pain medication. When they are released in your body, they help block pain signals. Your body can produce endorphins naturally—it’s just a matter of triggering your body to produce them more frequently.

Massage and meditation are two activities that boost the production of endorphins. These hormones can also help with anxiety, stress, and depression.

Hot and cold therapy

Sometimes, all you need for pain relief is the good old cold and hot therapy. All you have to do is apply cold and/or hot packs to reduce the pain and accelerate the healing process.

Cold therapy reduces inflammation, which is a culprit in any type of pain. Cold therapy also acts as a local anesthetic by slowing down nerve impulses.

Heat therapy, on the other hand, stimulates blood flow, bringing nutrients to the affected area and improving the healing process. Heat also inhibits the pain messages sent to the brain.

Strengthen your core

For long-term lower back pain relief, strengthening your core is the best option. The muscles in the back and in the abdomen play a critical role in supporting your spine. When your spine has the support it needs, you’ll feel less pain.

Since these muscles don’t get enough of a workout on a normal day with normal activities, you need to target them specifically with exercises for lower back pain. You can go to the gym or try some simple exercises that will take 20 or 30 minutes of your day.

Improve your posture

Speaking of spine support, good posture is the only way to prevent lower back pain. The strain causing the pain might have been building for years. Most people have poor posture nowadays, mostly because we are stuck in front of a computer. And sometimes, even the simplest tasks put pressure on the back. For example, leaning over the sink incorrectly to brush your teeth or wash the dishes can increase the pressure on your back by 50%.

To improve your posture, practice proper posture in front of a mirror. You should also hit the gym for some lower back pain exercises.

Keep moving

Our spine is meant to move. It’s not meant to stay in bed and rest. As mentioned previously, more than one day in bed will hurt you more than it will help you. Therefore, one of the remedies for lower back pain is to keep moving. Keep doing your daily activities. And walking is the best way to provide relief for your pain.

Quit smoking

A study published in the American Journal of Medicine found out that people who smoke are more likely to experience back pain. That applies to both current and former smokers.

There is a link between nicotine and back pain. Nicotine causes the small blood vessels to constrict and decrease the delivery of blood to the soft tissue. Most physical therapy experts recommend that people stop smoking to alleviate their back pain.

Stretches for lower back pain

The best part about stretches for lower back pain is that you can do them even when you’re in pain. Even more, stretches are usually the best and fastest way to get pain relief. When you’re dealing with aches and soreness from lower back pain, your first instinct might be to stay in bed and relax.

The better idea is to stretch. Don’t worry, there is no risk of damage. In fact, stretching reduces the risk of another lower back pain attack. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some poses for stretching.

Child’s Pose

One of the most common yoga postures, the child’s pose helps you stretch and relax the muscles of your lower back. These muscles are probably contracted, and are therefore the reason you’re feeling pain.

To perform this stretch, put your hands and knees on the floor. The hands should be just under your shoulders, while the knees are under the hips. Reach out directly in front of you by extending your arms and placing your palms flat on the floor. Now slowly sit your hips back toward the heels, and drop your chest and head downward as you try to further extend your arms. You can always place a pillow under the stomach to lessen the stretch.

The Cat Stretch

This is a dynamic movement that helps you stretch your lower back muscles in two directions. It’s slightly different than the child’s pose, but starts almost the same way.

As we know, your starting position is with hands and knees on the floor. Again, the hands are under the shoulders, while your knees are positioned under your hips.

Make sure your spine is parallel to the ground. Round your back, and while doing so, stretch your mid-back between the shoulder blades. The position looks similar to when a cat stretches by rounding its back. Hold the position for five seconds, and while exhaling, let your stomach fall downward while you’re arching your lower back. Hold again for five seconds, and then repeat.

Knee to chest stretch

Start by lying on your back, but make sure the knees are bent and your heels are positioned on the floor. Place your hands behind one knee, and then pull that knee toward the chest. You’re stretching all the muscles in the buttock, crucial for relief of lower back pain.

Kneeling lunge stretch

For this exercise, start by kneeling on both knees. Move one leg forward as for a classic lunge. Keep your weight evenly distributed through both hips. Place your hands on the top of the thigh, and then lean the body forward. You’ll feel a stretch in the front of the other leg. This exercise targets the hip flexor muscles, which can impact your posture if they’re too tight. Poor posture is another cause of low back pain.

Low back twist

This stretch targets both your glutes and low back. When your glutes are tight, you experience lower back pain. Helping them relax will ease the pain in your back.

Start by lying on your back. Your knees are bent, while your feet are flat on the floor. Extend the arms to the side in a “T position.” Your shoulders should stay on the ground while you gently roll both knees to one side. Stay in the position for 10 to 15 seconds, and then return to the starting position. Repeat on the other side.

The bridge

You might remember this exercise from your younger days. The stretch affects the gluteus maximus, the large muscle of the buttocks. This muscle, which is responsible for hip movement, helps with activities like squats. Weakness of the muscle contributes to low back pain. Being the stabilizer of the hip joints, this muscle helps with movements like walking.

For the stretch, lie on the ground with legs hip-width apart and feet flat on the floor. Place your hands by your sides, and then press your feet into the floor. Slowly lift your buttocks off the ground up to the point your body is in one straight line. Keep the shoulders on the floor, and stay for five to ten seconds. Lower the back down, and then rest for 30 seconds.

The pelvic tilt

The entire pelvic area might become immovable when you suffer from lower back pain. You can stretch the area to allow your body some movement.

Start by lying on the floor. Your feet are flat on the floor, while your knees are bent. Relax your low back, keeping it in neutral position, and then turn on the core muscles. Flatten your low back against the floor by slightly tilting your pelvis upward. Repeat 10 times.

Superman

This one serves as both an exercise for back muscles and for stretching the back muscles. If you’ve ever seen a Superman movie, you’ve seen our favorite hero fly.

This back extension helps you relax and stretch your entire spine. Start by lying on your stomach with arms extended out in front of you and your legs long. At the same time, lift both the arms and feet off the ground (you’ll feel a contraction in your lower back), and then engage your core muscles. Reach away as far as possible with your hands and feet to stretch more. Look at the floor while stretching to avoid neck strain. Hold for as long as possible, between 20 and 60 seconds.

Tips for stretching

If you have constant lower back pain, regular stretching of the muscles, ligaments, and tendons that support the spine is one of the most important aspects of your treatment. They are designed to alleviate neck and back pain. In some cases, a spine specialist prescribes stretches for lower back pain. In others, a doctor or physical therapist will do that. In any case, here are some extra tips to maximize the effectiveness of lower back pain stretches.

  • Wear comfortable clothing that won’t hamper your movement.
  • Don’t force your body. You should know the maximum you can reach, and don’t push into painful positions. Stretching should be pain-free.
  • Hold stretches between 15 and 30 seconds to improve the range of motion and lengthen the muscles.
  • Move into the stretching position slowly.
  • Avoid bouncing.
  • Repeat stretches for lower back pain between 2 and 5 times. Your muscles reach maximum elongation after the fourth repetition.
  • Always stretch only one side of the body at a time.
  • Turn on soothing music to further relax your body.
  • Use the stretching time as a chance to relax.

Benefits of stretching

  • Reduces tension in muscles supporting the spine
  • Improves range of motion
  • Improves overall mobility
  • Reduces risk of disability caused by back pain

Bear in mind, if your pain lasts longer than three months, you might need months of stretching to successfully reduce pain. Stretching is both a quick and long-term relief for back pain. Usually, patients with chronic lower back pain are advised to include stretching as part of their daily therapy.

Lower Back Pain: Causes and Best Exercises for Prevention

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