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Low back pain is pain that can occur anywhere below the ribs and above the legs. It is very common. Almost everyone has it at one time or another.
Low back pain can be:
Here are some common myths about low back pain—and the facts:
Myth:"I need to rest my back when I have back pain."
Fact: Staying active won't hurt you. It may help you get better faster.
Myth:"I need prescription pain medicine."
Fact: It's best to try to let time and being active heal your back. Opioid pain medicines—such as hydromorphone or oxycodone—usually don't work any better than over-the-counter medicines like ibuprofen or naproxen. And opioids can cause serious problems like opioid use disorder or overdose. Moderate to severe opioid use disorder is sometimes called addiction.
Myth:"I need a test like an X-ray or an MRI to diagnose my low back pain."
Fact: Getting a test right away won't help you get better faster. And it could lead you down a treatment path you may not need, since most people get better on their own.
In most cases, there isn't a clear cause. This can be frustrating, because your back hurts and there's no obvious reason. Your back pain can be caused by:
This can happen from playing sports, lifting heavy things, or not being physically fit.
This is a problem with the cushion between the bones in your back.
With age, you may have changes in your bones that can narrow the space around your nerves.
In rare cases, the cause is a serious illness like an infection or cancer. But there are usually other symptoms too.
Back pain can come on quickly or over time. You may feel:
A physical exam is the main way to diagnose low back pain. Your doctor may examine your back, check your nerves by testing your reflexes, and make sure that your muscles are strong. Your doctor also will ask questions about your back and overall health.
Most people don't need any tests right away. Tests often don't show the reason for your pain.
Imaging is only required if there is clinical suspicion of serious pathology (red flags) or if planning a specific intervention. Otherwise, no imaging should be ordered before 12 weeks.
Most acute low back pain gets better on its own within several weeks, no matter what the cause. Time and doing usual activities are all that most people need to feel better.
Using heat or ice and taking over-the-counter pain medicine also can help while your body heals.
If you aren't getting better on your own or your pain is very bad, your doctor may recommend:
If you have chronic low back pain, treatment will help you understand and manage your pain. Treatment may include:
Surgery isn't needed for most people. But it may help some types of low back pain.
Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse advice line (811 in most provinces and territories) if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.
Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:
Call your doctor or nurse advice line now or seek immediate medical care if:
Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor or nurse advice line if:
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Adaptation Date: 12/13/2023
Adapted By: Alberta Health Services
Adaptation Reviewed By: Alberta Health Services
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