Low back pain

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Low back pain
Other namesLower back pain, lumbago
Lumbar region in human skeleton.svg
Low back pain is a common and costly complaint.
Specialty Orthopedics, rheumatology, rehabilitation medicine
Usual onset20 to 40 years of age [1]
Duration~65% get better in 6 weeks [2]
TypesAcute (less than 6 weeks), sub-chronic (6 to 12 weeks), chronic (more than 12 weeks) [3]
CausesUsually non-specific, occasionally significant underlying cause [1] [4]
Diagnostic method Medical imaging (if red flags ) [5]
TreatmentContinued normal activity, non-medication based treatments, NSAIDs [2] [6]
Frequency~25% in any given month [7] [8]

Low back pain (LBP) is a common disorder involving the muscles, nerves, and bones of the back. [4] Pain can vary from a dull constant ache to a sudden sharp feeling. [4] Low back pain may be classified by duration as acute (pain lasting less than 6 weeks), sub-chronic (6 to 12 weeks), or chronic (more than 12 weeks). [3] The condition may be further classified by the underlying cause as either mechanical, non-mechanical, or referred pain. [5] The symptoms of low back pain usually improve within a few weeks from the time they start, with 40–90% of people completely better by six weeks. [2]


In most episodes of low back pain, a specific underlying cause is not identified or even looked for, with the pain believed to be due to mechanical problems such as muscle or joint strain. [1] [4] If the pain does not go away with conservative treatment or if it is accompanied by "red flags" such as unexplained weight loss, fever, or significant problems with feeling or movement, further testing may be needed to look for a serious underlying problem. [5] In most cases, imaging tools such as X-ray computed tomography are not useful and carry their own risks. [9] [10] Despite this, the use of imaging in low back pain has increased. [11] Some low back pain is caused by damaged intervertebral discs, and the straight leg raise test is useful to identify this cause. [5] In those with chronic pain, the pain processing system may malfunction, causing large amounts of pain in response to non-serious events. [12]

Initial management with non–medication based treatments is recommended. [6] NSAIDs are recommended if these are not sufficiently effective. [6] Normal activity should be continued as much as the pain allows. [2] Medications are recommended for the duration that they are helpful. [13] A number of other options are available for those who do not improve with usual treatment. Opioids may be useful if simple pain medications are not enough, but they are not generally recommended due to side effects. [4] [13] Surgery may be beneficial for those with disc-related chronic pain and disability or spinal stenosis. [14] [15] No clear benefit has been found for other cases of non-specific low back pain. [14] Low back pain often affects mood, which may be improved by counseling or antidepressants. [13] [16] Additionally, there are many alternative medicine therapies, including the Alexander technique and herbal remedies, but there is not enough evidence to recommend them confidently. [17] The evidence for chiropractic care [18] and spinal manipulation is mixed. [17] [19] [20] [21]

Approximately 9–12% of people (632 million) have LBP at any given point in time, and nearly 25% report having it at some point over any one-month period. [7] [8] About 40% of people have LBP at some point in their lives, [7] with estimates as high as 80% among people in the developed world. [22] Difficulty most often begins between 20 and 40 years of age. [1] Men and women are equally affected. [4] Low back pain is more common among people aged between 40 and 80 years, with the overall number of individuals affected expected to increase as the population ages. [7]

Video explanation

Signs and symptoms

In the common presentation of acute low back pain, pain develops after movements that involve lifting, twisting, or forward-bending. The symptoms may start soon after the movements or upon waking up the following morning. The description of the symptoms may range from tenderness at a particular point to diffuse pain. It may or may not worsen with certain movements, such as raising a leg, or positions, such as sitting or standing. Pain radiating down the legs (known as sciatica) may be present. The first experience of acute low back pain is typically between the ages of 20 and 40. This is often a person's first reason to see a medical professional as an adult. [1] Recurrent episodes occur in more than half of people [23] with the repeated episodes being generally more painful than the first. [1]

Other problems may occur along with low back pain. Chronic low back pain is associated with sleep problems, including a greater amount of time needed to fall asleep, disturbances during sleep, a shorter duration of sleep, and less satisfaction with sleep. [24] In addition, a majority of those with chronic low back pain show symptoms of depression [13] or anxiety. [17]


A herniated disc as seen on MRI, one possible cause of low back pain Lagehernia.png
A herniated disc as seen on MRI, one possible cause of low back pain

Low back pain is not a specific disease but rather a complaint that may be caused by a large number of underlying problems of varying levels of seriousness. [25] The majority of LBP does not have a clear cause [1] but is believed to be the result of non-serious muscle or skeletal issues such as sprains or strains. [26] Obesity, smoking, weight gain during pregnancy, stress, poor physical condition, poor posture and poor sleeping position may also contribute to low back pain. [26] A full list of possible causes includes many less common conditions. [5] Physical causes may include osteoarthritis, degeneration of the discs between the vertebrae or a spinal disc herniation, broken vertebra(e) (such as from osteoporosis) or, rarely, an infection or tumor of the spine. [27]

Women may have acute low back pain from medical conditions affecting the female reproductive system, including endometriosis, ovarian cysts, ovarian cancer, or uterine fibroids. [28] Nearly half of all pregnant women report pain in the lower back or sacral area during pregnancy, due to changes in their posture and center of gravity causing muscle and ligament strain. [29]

Low back pain can be broadly classified into four main categories:

Low back pain can also be caused by an urinary tract infection. [30]


Back structures

Illu vertebral column.jpg
The five lumbar vertebrae define the lower back region.
ACDF oblique annotated english.svg
The structures surrounding and supporting the vertebrae can be sources of low back pain.

The lumbar (or lower back) region is made up of five vertebrae (L1–L5), sometimes including the sacrum. In between these vertebrae are fibrocartilaginous discs, which act as cushions, preventing the vertebrae from rubbing together while at the same time protecting the spinal cord. Nerves come from and go to the spinal cord through specific openings between the vertebrae, providing the skin with sensations and messages to muscles. Stability of the spine is provided by the ligaments and muscles of the back and abdomen. Small joints called facet joints limit and direct the motion of the spine. [31]

The multifidus muscles run up and down along the back of the spine, and are important for keeping the spine straight and stable during many common movements such as sitting, walking and lifting. [12] A problem with these muscles is often found in someone with chronic low back pain, because the back pain causes the person to use the back muscles improperly in trying to avoid the pain. [32] The problem with the multifidus muscles continues even after the pain goes away, and is probably an important reason why the pain comes back. [32] Teaching people with chronic low back pain how to use these muscles is recommended as part of a recovery program. [32]

An intervertebral disc has a gelatinous core surrounded by a fibrous ring. [33] When in its normal, uninjured state, most of the disc is not served by either the circulatory or nervous systems – blood and nerves only run to the outside of the disc. [33] Specialized cells that can survive without direct blood supply are in the inside of the disc. [33] Over time, the discs lose flexibility and the ability to absorb physical forces. [25] This decreased ability to handle physical forces increases stresses on other parts of the spine, causing the ligaments of the spine to thicken and bony growths to develop on the vertebrae. [25] As a result, there is less space through which the spinal cord and nerve roots may pass. [25] When a disc degenerates as a result of injury or disease, the makeup of a disc changes: blood vessels and nerves may grow into its interior and/or herniated disc material can push directly on a nerve root. [33] Any of these changes may result in back pain. [33]

Pain sensation

Pain is generally an unpleasant feeling in response to an event that either damages or can potentially damage the body's tissues. There are four main steps in the process of feeling pain: transduction, transmission, perception, and modulation. [12] The nerve cells that detect pain have cell bodies located in the dorsal root ganglia and fibers that transmit these signals to the spinal cord. [34] The process of pain sensation starts when the pain-causing event triggers the endings of appropriate sensory nerve cells. This type of cell converts the event into an electrical signal by transduction. Several different types of nerve fibers carry out the transmission of the electrical signal from the transducing cell to the posterior horn of spinal cord, from there to the brain stem, and then from the brain stem to the various parts of the brain such as the thalamus and the limbic system. In the brain, the pain signals are processed and given context in the process of pain perception. Through modulation, the brain can modify the sending of further nerve impulses by decreasing or increasing the release of neurotransmitters. [12]

Parts of the pain sensation and processing system may not function properly; creating the feeling of pain when no outside cause exists, signaling too much pain from a particular cause, or signaling pain from a normally non-painful event. Additionally, the pain modulation mechanisms may not function properly. These phenomena are involved in chronic pain. [12]


As the structure of the back is complex and the reporting of pain is subjective and affected by social factors, the diagnosis of low back pain is not straightforward. [5] While most low back pain is caused by muscle and joint problems, this cause must be separated from neurological problems, spinal tumors, fracture of the spine, and infections, among others. [3] [1]


There are a number of ways to classify low back pain with no consensus that any one method is best. [5] There are three general types of low back pain by cause: mechanical back pain (including nonspecific musculoskeletal strains, herniated discs, compressed nerve roots, degenerative discs or joint disease, and broken vertebra), non-mechanical back pain (tumors, inflammatory conditions such as spondyloarthritis, and infections), and referred pain from internal organs (gallbladder disease, kidney stones, kidney infections, and aortic aneurysm, among others). [5] Mechanical or musculoskeletal problems underlie most cases (around 90% or more), [5] [35] and of those, most (around 75%) do not have a specific cause identified, but are thought to be due to muscle strain or injury to ligaments. [5] [35] Rarely, complaints of low back pain result from systemic or psychological problems, such as fibromyalgia and somatoform disorders. [35]

Low back pain may be classified based on the signs and symptoms. Diffuse pain that does not change in response to particular movements, and is localized to the lower back without radiating beyond the buttocks, is classified as nonspecific, the most common classification. [5] Pain that radiates down the leg below the knee, is located on one side (in the case of disc herniation), or is on both sides (in spinal stenosis), and changes in severity in response to certain positions or maneuvers is radicular, making up 7% of cases. [5] Pain that is accompanied by red flags such as trauma, fever, a history of cancer or significant muscle weakness may indicate a more serious underlying problem and is classified as needing urgent or specialized attention. [5]

The symptoms can also be classified by duration as acute, sub-chronic (also known as sub-acute), or chronic. The specific duration required to meet each of these is not universally agreed upon, but generally pain lasting less than six weeks is classified as acute, pain lasting six to twelve weeks is sub-chronic, and more than twelve weeks is chronic. [3] Management and prognosis may change based on the duration of symptoms.

Red flags

Red flags are warning signs that may indicate a more serious problem
Red flag [36] Possible cause [1]
Previous history of cancerCancer
Unintentional weight loss
Loss of bladder or bowel control Cauda
Significant motor weakness
or sensory problems
Loss of sensation in the
buttocks (saddle anesthesia)
Significant trauma related to ageFracture
Chronic corticosteroid use
Severe pain after lumbar
surgery in past year
Urinary tract infection
Intravenous drug use

The presence of certain signs, termed red flags, indicate the need for further testing to look for more serious underlying problems, which may require immediate or specific treatment. [5] [37] The presence of a red flag does not mean that there is a significant problem. It is only suggestive, [38] [39] and most people with red flags have no serious underlying problem. [3] [1] If no red flags are present, performing diagnostic imaging or laboratory testing in the first four weeks after the start of the symptoms has not been shown to be useful. [5]

The usefulness of many red flags are poorly supported by evidence. [40] [41] The most useful for detecting a fracture are: older age, corticosteroid use, and significant trauma especially if it results in skin markings. [40] The best determinant of the presence of cancer is a history of the same. [40]

With other causes ruled out, people with non-specific low back pain are typically treated symptomatically, without exact determination of the cause. [3] [1] Efforts to uncover factors that might complicate the diagnosis, such as depression, substance abuse, or an agenda concerning insurance payments may be helpful. [5]


The straight leg raise test can detect pain originating from a herniated disc. When warranted, imaging such as MRI can provide clear detail about disc related causes of back pain (L4–L5 disc herniation shown)

Imaging is indicated when there are red flags, ongoing neurological symptoms that do not resolve, or ongoing or worsening pain. [5] In particular, early use of imaging (either MRI or CT) is recommended for suspected cancer, infection, or cauda equina syndrome. [5] MRI is slightly better than CT for identifying disc disease; the two technologies are equally useful for diagnosing spinal stenosis. [5] Only a few physical diagnostic tests are helpful. [5] The straight leg raise test is almost always positive in those with disc herniation. [5] Lumbar provocative discography may be useful to identify a specific disc causing pain in those with chronic high levels of low back pain. [42] Similarly, therapeutic procedures such as nerve blocks can be used to determine a specific source of pain. [5] Some evidence supports the use of facet joint injections, transforminal epidural injections and sacroilliac injections as diagnostic tests. [5] Most other physical tests, such as evaluating for scoliosis, muscle weakness or wasting, and impaired reflexes, are of little use. [5]

Complaints of low back pain are one of the most common reasons people visit doctors. [9] [43] For pain that has lasted only a few weeks, the pain is likely to subside on its own. [44] Thus, if a person's medical history and physical examination do not suggest a specific disease as the cause, medical societies advise against imaging tests such as X-rays, CT scans, and MRIs. [43] Individuals may want such tests but, unless red flags are present, [10] [45] they are unnecessary health care. [9] [44] Routine imaging increases costs, is associated with higher rates of surgery with no overall benefit, [46] [47] and the radiation used may be harmful to one's health. [46] Fewer than 1% of imaging tests identify the cause of the problem. [9] Imaging may also detect harmless abnormalities, encouraging people to request further unnecessary testing or to worry. [9] Even so, MRI scans of the lumbar region increased by more than 300% among United States Medicare beneficiaries from 1994 to 2006. [11]


Exercise appears to be useful for preventing low back pain. [48] Exercise is also probably effective in preventing recurrences in those with pain that has lasted more than six weeks. [1] [49] Medium-firm mattresses are more beneficial for chronic pain than firm mattresses. [50] There is little to no evidence that back belts are any more helpful in preventing low back pain than education about proper lifting techniques. [48] [51] There is no quality data that supports medium firm mattresses over firm mattresses. A few studies that have contradicted this notion have also failed to include sleep posture and mattress firmness. The most comfortable sleep surface may be preferred. [52] Shoe insoles do not help prevent low back pain. [48] [53]


Most people with acute or subacute low back pain improve over time no matter the treatment. [6] There is often improvement within the first month. [6] Recommendations include remaining active, avoiding activity that worsen the pain, and understanding self-care of the symptoms. [6] Management of low back pain depends on which of the three general categories is the cause: mechanical problems, non-mechanical problems, or referred pain. [54] For acute pain that is causing only mild to moderate problems, the goals are to restore normal function, return the individual to work, and minimize pain. The condition is normally not serious, resolves without much being done, and recovery is helped by attempting to return to normal activities as soon as possible within the limits of pain. [3] Providing individuals with coping skills through reassurance of these facts is useful in speeding recovery. [1] For those with sub-chronic or chronic low back pain, multidisciplinary treatment programs may help. [55] Initial management with non–medication based treatments is recommended, with NSAIDs used if these are not sufficiently effective. [6] Non–medication based treatments include superficial heat, massage, acupuncture, or spinal manipulation. [6] Acetaminophen and systemic steroids are not recommended as both medications are not effective at improving pain outcomes in acute or subacute low back pain. [6]

Physical management

Increasing general physical activity has been recommended, but no clear relationship to pain or disability has been found when used for the treatment of an acute episode of pain. [49] [56] For acute pain, low- to moderate-quality evidence supports walking. [57] Treatment according to McKenzie method is somewhat effective for recurrent acute low back pain, but its benefit in the short term does not appear significant. [1] There is tentative evidence to support the use of heat therapy for acute and sub-chronic low back pain [58] but little evidence for the use of either heat or cold therapy in chronic pain. [59] Weak evidence suggests that back belts might decrease the number of missed workdays, but there is nothing to suggest that they will help with the pain. [51] Ultrasound and shock wave therapies do not appear effective and therefore are not recommended. [60] [61] Lumbar traction lacks effectiveness as an intervention for radicular low back pain. [62] It is also unclear whether lumbar supports are an effective treatment intervention. [63] Aerobic exercises like progressive walking appears useful for subacute and acute low back pain, is strongly recommended for chronic low back pain, and is recommended after surgery. [52] In terms of directional exercise which try to limit low back pain is recommended in sub-acute, chronic and radicular low back pain. These exercises only work if they are limiting low back pain. [52] Exercise programs that incorporate stretching only are not recommended for low back pain. Generic or non specific stretching has also been found to not help with acute low back pain. Stretching, especially with limited range of motion, can impede future progression of treatment like limiting strength and limiting exercises. [52]

Exercise therapy is effective in decreasing pain and improving physical function, trunk muscle strength and mental health for those with chronic low back pain. [64] It also appears to reduce recurrence rates for as long as six months after the completion of program [65] and improves long-term function. [59] There is no evidence that one particular type of exercise therapy is more effective than another. [66] [67] The Alexander technique appears useful for chronic back pain, [68] and there is tentative evidence to support the use of yoga. [69] If a person is motivated with chronic low back pain, it is recommended to use yoga and tai chi as a form of treatment, but not recommended to treat acute or subacute low back pain. [52] Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) has not been found to be effective in chronic low back pain. [70] Evidence for the use of shoe insoles as a treatment is inconclusive. [53] Motor control exercise involves guided movement and use of normal muscles during simple tasks which then builds to more complex tasks improves pain and function up to 20 weeks but was little different from manual therapy and other forms of exercise. [71] Motor control exercise accompanied by manual therapy also produces similar reductions in pain intensity when compared to general strength and condition exercise training, yet only the latter also improved muscle endurance and strength, whilst concurrently decreased self-reported disability. [72] Peripheral nerve stimulation, a minimally-invasive procedure, may be useful in cases of chronic low back pain that do not respond to other measures, although the evidence supporting it is not conclusive, and it is not effective for pain that radiates into the leg. [73] Aquatic therapy is recommended as an option in those with other preexisting conditions like extreme obesity, degenerative joint disease, or other conditions that limit progressive walking. Aquatic therapy is recommended for chronic and subacute low back pain in those with a preexisting condition. Aquatic therapy is not recommended for people that have no preexisting condition that limits their progressive walking. [52] There has been little research that supports the use of lumbar extension machines and thus they are not recommended. [52] There is no quality evidence that supports pilates in low back pain. [52]


The management of low back pain often includes medications for the duration that they are beneficial. With the first episode of low back pain the hope is a complete cure; however, if the problem becomes chronic, the goals may change to pain management and the recovery of as much function as possible. As pain medications are only somewhat effective, expectations regarding their benefit may differ from reality, and this can lead to decreased satisfaction. [13]

The medication typically recommended first are acetaminophen (paracetamol), NSAIDs (though not aspirin), or skeletal muscle relaxants and these are enough for most people. [13] [6] [74] Benefits with NSAIDs; however, is often small. [75] High-quality reviews have found acetaminophen (paracetamol) to be no more effective than placebo at improving pain, quality of life, or function. [76] [77] NSAIDs are more effective for acute episodes than acetaminophen; however, they carry a greater risk of side effects, including kidney failure, stomach ulcers and possibly heart problems. Thus, NSAIDs are a second choice to acetaminophen, recommended only when the pain is not handled by the latter. NSAIDs are available in several different classes; there is no evidence to support the use of COX-2 inhibitors over any other class of NSAIDs with respect to benefits. [75] [13] [78] With respect to safety naproxen may be best. [79] Muscle relaxants may be beneficial. [13]

If the pain is still not managed adequately, short term use of opioids such as morphine may be useful. [80] [13] These medications carry a risk of addiction, may have negative interactions with other drugs, and have a greater risk of side effects, including dizziness, nausea, and constipation. [13] The effect of long term use of opioids for lower back pain is unknown. [81] Opioid treatment for chronic low back pain increases the risk for lifetime illicit drug use. [82] Specialist groups advise against general long-term use of opioids for chronic low back pain. [13] [83] As of 2016, the CDC has released a guideline for prescribed opioid use in the management of chronic pain. [84] It states that opioid use is not the preferred treatment when managing chronic pain due to the excessive risks involved. If prescribed, a person and their clinician should have a realistic plan to discontinue its use in the event that the risks outweigh the benefit. [84]

For older people with chronic pain, opioids may be used in those for whom NSAIDs present too great a risk, including those with diabetes, stomach or heart problems. They may also be useful for a select group of people with neuropathic pain. [85]

Antidepressants may be effective for treating chronic pain associated with symptoms of depression, but they have a risk of side effects. [13] Although the antiseizure drugs gabapentin, pregabalin, and topiramate are sometimes used for chronic low back pain evidence does not support a benefit. [86] Systemic oral steroids have not been shown to be useful in low back pain. [1] [13] Facet joint injections and steroid injections into the discs have not been found to be effective in those with persistent, non-radiating pain; however, they may be considered for those with persistent sciatic pain. [87] Epidural corticosteroid injections provide a slight and questionable short-term improvement in those with sciatica but are of no long term benefit. [88] There are also concerns of potential side effects. [89]


Surgery may be useful in those with a herniated disc that is causing significant pain radiating into the leg, significant leg weakness, bladder problems, or loss of bowel control. [14] It may also be useful in those with spinal stenosis. [15] In the absence of these issues, there is no clear evidence of a benefit from surgery. [14]

Discectomy (the partial removal of a disc that is causing leg pain) can provide pain relief sooner than nonsurgical treatments. [14] Discectomy has better outcomes at one year but not at four to ten years. [14] The less invasive microdiscectomy has not been shown to result in a different outcome than regular discectomy. [14] For most other conditions, there is not enough evidence to provide recommendations for surgical options. [14] The long-term effect surgery has on degenerative disc disease is not clear. [14] Less invasive surgical options have improved recovery times, but evidence regarding effectiveness is insufficient. [14]

For those with pain localized to the lower back due to disc degeneration, fair evidence supports spinal fusion as equal to intensive physical therapy and slightly better than low-intensity nonsurgical measures. [15] Fusion may be considered for those with low back pain from acquired displaced vertebra that does not improve with conservative treatment, [14] although only a few of those who have spinal fusion experience good results. [15] There are a number of different surgical procedures to achieve fusion, with no clear evidence of one being better than the others. [90] Adding spinal implant devices during fusion increases the risks but provides no added improvement in pain or function. [11]

Alternative medicine

It is unclear if among those with non-chronic back pain alternative treatments are useful. [91] Chiropractic care or spinal manipulation therapy (SMT) appears similar to other recommended treatments. [92] National guidelines reach different conclusions, with some not recommending spinal manipulation, some describing manipulation as optional, and others recommending a short course for those who do not improve with other treatments. [3] A 2017 review recommended spinal manipulation based on low quality evidence. [6] Manipulation under anaesthesia, or medically assisted manipulation, has not enough evidence to make any confident recommendation. [93] Spinal manipulative does not have a significant benefits over motor control exercises. [94]

Acupuncture is no better than placebo, usual care, or sham acupuncture for nonspecific acute pain or sub-chronic pain. [95] For those with chronic pain, it improves pain a little more than no treatment and about the same as medications, but it does not help with disability. [95] This pain benefit is only present right after treatment and not at follow-up. [95] Acupuncture may be a reasonable method to try for those with chronic pain that does not respond to other treatments like conservative care and medications. [1] [96]

Massage therapy does not appear to provide much benefit for acute low back pain. [1] A 2015 Cochrane review found that for acute low back pain massage therapy was better than no treatment for pain only in the short-term. [97] There was no effect for improving function. [97] For chronic low back pain massage therapy was no better than no treatment for both pain and function, though only in the short-term. [97] The overall quality of the evidence was low and the authors conclude that massage therapy is generally not an effective treatment for low back pain. [97] Massage therapy is recommended for selected people with subacute and chronic low back pain, but it should be paired with another form of treatment like aerobic or strength exercises. For acute or chronic radicular pain syndromes massage therapy is recommended only if low back pain is considered a symptom. Mechanical massage tools are not recommended for the treatment of any form of low back pain. [52]

Prolotherapy – the practice of injecting solutions into joints (or other areas) to cause inflammation and thereby stimulate the body's healing response – has not been found to be effective by itself, although it may be helpful when added to another therapy. [17]

Herbal medicines, as a whole, are poorly supported by evidence. [98] The herbal treatments Devil's claw and white willow may reduce the number of individuals reporting high levels of pain; however, for those taking pain relievers, this difference is not significant. [17] Capsicum, in the form of either a gel or a plaster cast, has been found to reduce pain and increase function. [17]

Behavioral therapy may be useful for chronic pain. [16] There are several types available, including operant conditioning, which uses reinforcement to reduce undesirable behaviors and increase desirable behaviors; cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps people identify and correct negative thinking and behavior; and respondent conditioning, which can modify an individual's physiological response to pain. [17] The benefit however is small. [99] Medical providers may develop an integrated program of behavioral therapies. [17] The evidence is inconclusive as to whether mindfulness-based stress reduction reduces chronic back pain intensity or associated disability, although it suggests that it may be useful in improving the acceptance of existing pain. [100] [101]

Tentative evidence supports neuroreflexotherapy (NRT), in which small pieces of metal are placed just under the skin of the ear and back, for non-specific low back pain. [102] [103] [104] Multidisciplinary biopsychosocial rehabilitation (MBR), targeting physical and psychological aspects, may improve back pain but evidence is limited. [105] There is a lack of good quality evidence to support the use of radiofrequency denervation for pain relief. [106]

KT Tape has been found to be no different for management of chronic non-specific low back pain than other established pain management strategies. [107]


There is strong evidence that education may improve low back pain, with a 2.5 hour educational session more effective than usual care for helping people return to work in the short- and long-term. This was more effective for people with acute rather than chronic back pain. [108]


Overall, the outcome for acute low back pain is positive. Pain and disability usually improve a great deal in the first six weeks, with complete recovery reported by 40 to 90%. [2] In those who still have symptoms after six weeks, improvement is generally slower with only small gains up to one year. At one year, pain and disability levels are low to minimal in most people. Distress, previous low back pain, and job satisfaction are predictors of long-term outcome after an episode of acute pain. [2] Certain psychological problems such as depression, or unhappiness due to loss of employment may prolong the episode of low back pain. [13] Following a first episode of back pain, recurrences occur in more than half of people. [23]

For persistent low back pain, the short-term outcome is also positive, with improvement in the first six weeks but very little improvement after that. At one year, those with chronic low back pain usually continue to have moderate pain and disability. [2] People at higher risk of long-term disability include those with poor coping skills or with fear of activity (2.5 times more likely to have poor outcomes at one year), [109] those with a poor ability to cope with pain, functional impairments, poor general health, or a significant psychiatric or psychological component to the pain (Waddell's signs). [109]

Prognosis may be influenced by expectations, with those having positive expectations of recovery related to higher likelihood of returning to work and overall outcomes. [110]


Low back pain that lasts at least one day and limits activity is a common complaint. [7] Globally, about 40% of people have LBP at some point in their lives, [7] with estimates as high as 80% of people in the developed world. [22] Approximately 9 to 12% of people (632 million) have LBP at any given point in time, and nearly one quarter (23.2%) report having it at some point over any one-month period. [7] [8] Difficulty most often begins between 20 and 40 years of age. [1] Low back pain is more common among people aged 4080 years, with the overall number of individuals affected expected to increase as the population ages. [7]

It is not clear whether men or women have higher rates of low back pain. [7] [8] A 2012 review reported a rate of 9.6% among males and 8.7% among females. [8] Another 2012 review found a higher rate in females than males, which the reviewers felt was possibly due to greater rates of pains due to osteoporosis, menstruation, and pregnancy among women, or possibly because women were more willing to report pain than men. [7] An estimated 70% of women experience back pain during pregnancy with the rate being higher the further along in pregnancy. [111] Current smokers – and especially those who are adolescents – are more likely to have low back pain than former smokers, and former smokers are more likely to have low back pain than those who have never smoked. [112]


Harvey Williams Cushing, 1920s Harvey Cushing, Doris Ulmann 1920s.jpg
Harvey Williams Cushing, 1920s

Low back pain has been with humans since at least the Bronze Age. The oldest known surgical treatise – the Edwin Smith Papyrus, dating to about 1500 BCE – describes a diagnostic test and treatment for a vertebral sprain. Hippocrates (c. 460 BCE – c. 370 BCE) was the first to use a term for sciatic pain and low back pain; Galen (active mid to late second century CE) described the concept in some detail. Physicians through the end of the first millennium did not attempt back surgery and recommended watchful waiting. Through the Medieval period, folk medicine practitioners provided treatments for back pain based on the belief that it was caused by spirits. [113]

At the start of the 20th century, physicians thought low back pain was caused by inflammation of or damage to the nerves, [113] with neuralgia and neuritis frequently mentioned by them in the medical literature of the time. [114] The popularity of such proposed causes decreased during the 20th century. [114] In the early 20th century, American neurosurgeon Harvey Williams Cushing increased the acceptance of surgical treatments for low back pain. [14] In the 1920s and 1930s, new theories of the cause arose, with physicians proposing a combination of nervous system and psychological disorders such as nerve weakness (neurasthenia) and female hysteria. [113] Muscular rheumatism (now called fibromyalgia) was also cited with increasing frequency. [114]

Emerging technologies such as X-rays gave physicians new diagnostic tools, revealing the intervertebral disc as a source for back pain in some cases. In 1938, orthopedic surgeon Joseph S. Barr reported on cases of disc-related sciatica improved or cured with back surgery. [114] As a result of this work, in the 1940s, the vertebral disc model of low back pain took over, [113] dominating the literature through the 1980s, aiding further by the rise of new imaging technologies such as CT and MRI. [114] The discussion subsided as research showed disc problems to be a relatively uncommon cause of the pain. Since then, physicians have come to realize that it is unlikely that a specific cause for low back pain can be identified in many cases and question the need to find one at all as most of the time symptoms resolve within 6 to 12 weeks regardless of treatment. [113]

Society and culture

Low back pain results in large economic costs. In the United States, it is the most common type of pain in adults, responsible for a large number of missed work days, and is the most common musculoskeletal complaint seen in the emergency department. [25] In 1998, it was estimated to be responsible for $90 billion in annual health care costs, with 5% of individuals incurring most (75%) of the costs. [25] Between 1990 and 2001 there was a more than twofold increase in spinal fusion surgeries in the US, despite the fact that there were no changes to the indications for surgery or new evidence of greater usefulness. [11] Further costs occur in the form of lost income and productivity, with low back pain responsible for 40% of all missed work days in the United States. [115] Low back pain causes disability in a larger percentage of the workforce in Canada, Great Britain, the Netherlands and Sweden than in the US or Germany. [115]

Workers who experience acute low back pain as a result of a work injury may be asked by their employers to have x-rays. [116] As in other cases, testing is not indicated unless red flags are present. [116] An employer's concern about legal liability is not a medical indication and should not be used to justify medical testing when it is not indicated. [116] There should be no legal reason for encouraging people to have tests which a health care provider determines are not indicated. [116]


Total disc replacement is an experimental option, [33] but no significant evidence supports its use over lumbar fusion. [14] Researchers are investigating the possibility of growing new intervertebral structures through the use of injected human growth factors, implanted substances, cell therapy, and tissue engineering. [33]

Related Research Articles

Acupuncture alternative medicine practice characterized as quackery by modern medical science.

Acupuncture is a form of alternative medicine and a key component of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) in which thin needles are inserted into the body. Acupuncture is a pseudoscience because the theories and practices of TCM are not based on scientific knowledge, and it has been characterized as quackery. There is a range of acupuncture variants which originated in different philosophies, and techniques vary depending on the country in which it is performed. It is most often used to attempt pain relief, though acupuncturists say that it can also be used for a wide range of other conditions. Acupuncture is generally used only in combination with other forms of treatment.

Chiropractic Form of alternative medicine

Chiropractic is a pseudoscientific complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) that is concerned with the diagnosis and treatment of mechanical disorders of the musculoskeletal system, especially the spine. Chiropractors, especially those in the field's early history, have proposed that such disorders affect general health via the nervous system. The main chiropractic treatment technique involves manual therapy, especially manipulation of the spine, other joints, and soft tissues, but may also include exercises and health and lifestyle counseling. Chiropractors are not physicians or medical doctors.

Sinusitis Inflammation of the mucous membrane that lines the sinuses resulting in symptoms

Sinusitis, also known as rhinosinusitis, is inflammation of the mucous membranes that line the sinuses resulting in symptoms. Common symptoms include thick nasal mucus, a plugged nose, and facial pain. Other signs and symptoms may include fever, headaches, a poor sense of smell, sore throat, and a cough. The cough is often worse at night. Serious complications are rare. It is defined as acute sinusitis if it lasts fewer than 4 weeks, and as chronic sinusitis if it lasts for more than 12 weeks.

Chronic pain Acute pain extending beyond the usual healing process; >3-12+ months

Chronic pain is pain that lasts a long time. In medicine, the distinction between acute and chronic pain is sometimes determined by the amount of time since onset. Two commonly used markers are pain that continues at 3 months and 6 months since onset, but some theorists and researchers have placed the transition from acute to chronic pain at 12 months. Others apply the term acute to pain that lasts less than 30 days, chronic to pain of more than six months duration, and subacute to pain that lasts from one to six months. A popular alternative definition of chronic pain, involving no fixed duration, is "pain that extends beyond the expected period of healing".

Back pain type of pain felt in the back

Back pain, also known as backache, is pain felt in the back. The back is divided into neck pain (cervical), middle back pain (thoracic), lower back pain (lumbar) or coccydynia based on the segment affected. The lumbar area is the most common area affected. Episodes of back pain may be acute, sub-acute, or chronic depending on the duration. The pain may be characterized as a dull ache, shooting or piercing pain, or a burning sensation. Discomfort can radiate into the arms and hands as well as the legs or feet, and may include numbness, or weakness in the legs and arms.

Tension headache a common type of headache classified by The International Classification of Headache Disorders 3rd edition

Tension headache, also known as stress headache, or tension-type headache (TTH), is the most common type of primary headache. The pain can radiate from the lower back of the head, the neck, eyes or other muscle groups in the body typically affecting both sides of the head. Tension-type headaches account for nearly 90% of all headaches.

Sciatica medical condition with pain down the leg from the lower back

Sciatica is a health condition characterized by pain going down the leg from the lower back. This pain may go down the back, outside, or front of the leg. Onset is often sudden following activities like heavy lifting, though gradual onset may also occur. The pain is often described as shooting. Typically, symptoms are only on one side of the body. Certain causes, however, may result in pain on both sides. Lower back pain is sometimes present. Weakness or numbness may occur in various parts of the affected leg and foot.

Pain management branch of medicine employing an interdisciplinary approach for easing the suffering and improving the quality of life of those living with chronic pain

Pain management, pain medicine, pain control or algiatry, is a branch of medicine employing an interdisciplinary approach for easing the suffering and improving the quality of life of those living with chronic pain. The typical pain management team includes medical practitioners, pharmacists, clinical psychologists, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, physician assistants, nurses, dentists. The team may also include other mental health specialists and massage therapists. Pain sometimes resolves promptly once the underlying trauma or pathology has healed, and is treated by one practitioner, with drugs such as analgesics and (occasionally) anxiolytics. Effective management of chronic (long-term) pain, however, frequently requires the coordinated efforts of the pain management team. Effective pain management does not mean total eradication of all pain.

Peripheral neuropathy nervous system disease located in nerves or nerve cells

Peripheral neuropathy, often shortened to neuropathy, is a general term describing disease affecting the peripheral nerves, meaning nerves beyond the brain and spinal cord. Damage to peripheral nerves may impair sensation, movement, gland or organ function depending on which nerves are affected; in other words, neuropathy affecting motor, sensory, or autonomic nerves result in different symptoms. More than one type of nerve may be affected simultaneously. Peripheral neuropathy may be acute or chronic, and may be reversible or permanent.

Back injury damage, wear, or trauma to the bones, muscles, or other tissues of the back

Back injuries result from damage, wear, or trauma to the bones, muscles, or other tissues of the back. Common back injuries include sprains and strains, herniated discs, and fractured vertebrae. The lumbar spine is often the site of back pain. The area is susceptible because of its flexibility and the amount of body weight it regularly bears. It is estimated that low-back pain may affect as much as 80 to 90 percent of the general population in the United States.

Cyclobenzaprine chemical compound

Cyclobenzaprine, sold under the brand name Flexeril among others, is a medication used for muscle spasms from musculoskeletal conditions of sudden onset. It is not useful in cerebral palsy. It is taken by mouth. Use is not recommended for more than a few weeks.

Electrotherapy use of electricity for medical purposes

Electrotherapy is the use of electrical energy as a medical treatment. In medicine, the term electrotherapy can apply to a variety of treatments, including the use of electrical devices such as deep brain stimulators for neurological disease. The term has also been applied specifically to the use of electric current to speed wound healing. Additionally, the term "electrotherapy" or "electromagnetic therapy" has also been applied to a range of alternative medical devices and treatments.

Spinal manipulation adjustment and manipulation of the vertebral column

Spinal manipulation is an intervention performed on spinal articulations which are synovial joints, which is asserted to be therapeutic. These articulations in the spine that are amenable to spinal manipulative therapy include the z-joints, the atlanto-occipital, atlanto-axial, lumbosacral, sacroiliac, costotransverse and costovertebral joints. National guidelines come to different conclusions with respect to spinal manipulation with some not recommending it, and others recommending a short course in those who do not improve with other treatments.

Middle back pain, also known as thoracic back pain, is back pain that is felt in the region of the thoracic vertebrae, which are between the bottom of the neck and top of the lumbar spine. It has a number of potential causes, ranging from muscle strain to collapse of a vertebra or rare serious diseases. The upper spine is very strong and stable to support the weight of the upper body, as well as to anchor the rib cage which provides a cavity to allow the heart and lungs to function and protect them.

Spinal disc herniation Disease

Spinal disc herniation is an injury to the cushioning and connective tissue between vertebrae, usually caused by excessive strain or trauma to the spine. It may result in back pain, pain or sensation in different parts of the body, and physical disability. The most conclusive diagnostic tool for disc herniation is MRI, and treatment may range from painkillers to surgery. Protection from disc herniation is best provided by core strength and an awareness of body mechanics including posture.

Radiculopathy Human disease

Radiculopathy, also commonly referred to as pinched nerve, refers to a set of conditions in which one or more nerves are affected and do not work properly. This can result in pain, weakness, numbness, or difficulty controlling specific muscles.

Neck pain common medical problem

Neck pain, also known as cervicalgia, is a common problem, with two-thirds of the population having neck pain at some point in their lives.

Chiropractors primarily use manipulation of the spine as a treatment. It was founded in North America by DD Palmer in the 19th century.

Low-level laser therapy treatment using irradiation with light of low power intensity

Low-level laser therapy (LLLT) is a form of medicine that applies low-level (low-power) lasers or light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to the surface of the body. Whereas high-power lasers are used in laser medicine to cut or destroy tissue, it is claimed that application of low-power lasers relieves pain or stimulates and enhances cell function.

Spinal stenosis Disease of the bony spine that results in narrowing of the spinal canal

Spinal stenosis is an abnormal narrowing of the spinal canal or neural foramen that results in pressure on the spinal cord or nerve roots. Symptoms may include pain, numbness, or weakness in the arms or legs. Symptoms are typically gradual in onset and improve with bending forwards. Severe symptoms may include loss of bladder control, loss of bowel control, or sexual dysfunction.


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