Acute lower back pain describes any generalized type of pain that affects the lumbar region of the spine and lasts only a few days or weeks. This condition often comes on suddenly and can be related to a specific injury or to an underlying condition, such as arthritis. If the pain lasts longer than three months, it is then considered chronic lower back pain.
Symptoms of acute lower back pain can include muscle aches and spasms; pain that is described as shooting, sharp, or stabbing; and limited flexibility that may affect one or both sides of the lower back. Some individuals also experience pain in the buttocks or radiating down one or both legs. Moderate to severe lower back pain may make sitting, standing, or stooping difficult.
Most everyone will experience some degree of acute lower back pain during their lifetime. If affects both men and women equally, but occurs most often between the ages of 30 and 50. During the aging process, it is normal for bone strength and muscle tone to decrease which, in turn, weakens the lower back and makes it more susceptible to injury. In addition, the cartilage discs between the vertebrae tend to lose fluid and rigidity over time, reducing the disc’s height and making nerve compression more likely.
Sprains, strains, and fractures are other common sources of lower back pain. Sprains can occur during normal activities, such as bending, stooping, or lifting, and result in tears in the ligaments supporting the spine. Muscle strains in the lower back are also caused by daily activities. Fractures in the vertebrae are usually less common, but can be caused by severe accidents or falls.
The diagnosis of acute lower back pain can often be made based on the symptoms presented by the individual. Other diagnostic tests can include discography, CT scans (computed tomography), and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). Nerve conduction studies may be used to help make the diagnosis in some cases, especially if the individual is experiencing numbness or tingling. The use of x-rays might also be incorporated if fractures or other conditions are suspected.
Treatment for acute lower back pain can include the use of analgesics to alleviate pain and help reduce inflammation. Many physicians will suggest alternating ice and heat in fifteen minute intervals to ease stiffness and increase mobility. Bed rest was once strongly recommended for acute lower back pain but this is no longer true in most cases. A Finnish study conducted in 1996 found that extended bed rest can prolong recovery and lead to other complications. Additional studies conducted since then have also concluded that for most cases of low back pain movement, mild exercise, and stretching activities are often highly effective treatments.