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Overview of low back pain

Mō te mamae ki te tuarā o raro

Low back pain is very common. Around 80% of people have it at least once in their life and approximately 10% of the world's population have back pain at any one time.

In many cases we do not know exactly what is causing your back pain. This is called non-specific low back pain.

Understanding your back

Normal spine, showing the vertebrae, with discs in between, and the spinal cord running through the vertebral columnYour spine is made up of bones called vertebrae. There are discs between the vertebrae, which act as shock absorbers and allow your spine to be flexible.

Strong bands of tissue called ligaments support your spine, and muscles make it move. Joints between the vertebrae, called facet joints, guide the way it moves.

Your spine protects your spinal cord, which contains nerves to and from your brain. Nerves from your spinal cord come out from between the vertebrae and continue to other parts of your body.

The medical name for your lower back is your lumbosacral (lum-bo-sak-ral) spine.

Non-specific back pain

Pain is your body's way of letting you know that something is not right.

Low back pain is usually mechanical, which means something inside your lower back has been disturbed, but not necessarily damaged.

Most cases of lower back pain are known as non-specific, meaning they aren't caused by serious damage or disease. We'll never know which part of your back is causing your pain, but that’s okay as we do not need to know that for you to get better.

The intensity of non-specific back pain can range from mild to severe.

back painThe pain is usually in your lower back, but it might spread to your buttocks, thighs, lower legs or feet. Lying down flat, standing or gently walking usually eases the pain. Bending forwards, lifting, coughing, sneezing, getting up from sitting or sitting for too long often makes it worse.

If you have any concerns about your back pain, or it is not improving, see your GP or physiotherapist. They will be able to assess what is happening and give advice about treatment.

Sometimes, back pain is caused by damage to parts of your spine, such as:

Diagnosing low back pain

Your doctor or physiotherapist will ask you questions and examine you to help diagnose the cause of your low back pain.

If you have non-specific back pain, you're unlikely to need any tests such as X-rays or scans in the first few weeks. If your pain doesn't get better as expected or your doctor or physiotherapist is concerned about a specific cause of the pain, you may need X-rays or scans such as MRI. Or you might need to see a specialist.

Treating low back pain

Most low back pain gets better with self-care but sometimes you'll need help from a health professional.

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On the next page: Preventing low back pain

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed May 2022.


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