Acute or short-term low back pain generally lasts from a few days to a few weeks. Most acute back pain is the result of trauma to the lower back or a disorder such as arthritis. Pain from trauma may be caused by a sports injury, work around the house or in the garden, or a sudden jolt such as a car accident or other stress on spinal bones and tissues.
Symptoms may range from muscle ache to shooting or stabbing pain, limited flexibility and range of motion, or an inability to stand straight.
Chronic back pain is pain that persists for more than 3 months. It is often progressive and the cause can be difficult to determine.
Recurring back pain resulting from improper body mechanics or other nontraumatic causes is often preventable. Engaging in exercises that don’t jolt or strain the back, maintaining correct posture, and lifting objects properly can help prevent injuries. Many work-related injuries are caused or aggravated by stressors such as heavy lifting, vibration, repetitive motion, and awkward posture. Applying ergonomic principles — designing furniture and tools to protect the body from injury — at home and in the workplace can greatly reduce the risk of back injury and help maintain a healthy back.
Most patients with back pain recover without residual functional loss, but individuals should contact a doctor if there is not a noticeable reduction in pain and inflammation after 72 hours of self-care.
The goal of treatment is to restore proper function and strength to the back, and prevent recurrence of the injury. Most low back pain can be treated without surgery. Treatment involves using over-the-counter pain relievers to reduce discomfort and anti-inflammatory drugs to reduce inflammation. Although the use of cold and hot compresses has never been scientifically proven to quickly resolve low back injury, compresses may help reduce pain and inflammation and allow greater mobility for some individuals.
Bed rest is recommended for only 1–2 days at most. Individuals should resume activities as soon as possible. Exercise may be the most effective way to speed recovery from low back pain and help strengthen back and abdominal muscles. In the most serious cases, when the condition does not respond to other therapies, surgery may relieve pain caused by back problems or serious musculoskeletal injuries.