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Lower back strain

Lower back strain can be the painful result of heavy lifting, falls and other causes.

Muscles and ligaments in your back holding the bones of the spinal column in place can be over stretched, causing tissue tears and lower back pain.

Lower back strain can be caused by:

  • Extreme physical exertion
  • Falling
  • Bending or crouching repeatedly
  • Lifting heavy objects.

It can also be caused by emotional stress, being overweight, being out of shape or sitting in the same position for long periods of time. Even a coughing fit can result in low back strain.

Bear in mind that lower back strain can't be blamed for all back pain. There are many other causes, like slipped discs, fractures, pinched nerves, arthritis and infections.

What does lower back strain feel like?

Symptoms of lower back strain include:

  • Pain and stiffness in the back
  • Pain in the buttocks and the legs, often in the back of the thigh
  • Pain that worsens when bending, stretching, coughing or sneezing.

Since some symptoms of lower back strain are similar to those of more serious conditions, it's important to get medical advice. Any numbness and weakness in your legs, or bowel and bladder problems, can be a sign of nerve damage - and that needs immediate medical attention.

To diagnose lower back strain, your doctor may give you an examination. You may also need X-rays, MRI scan (magnetic resonance imaging), or a CT scan. These extra tests may only be needed if your pain doesn't go away on its own or with conservative treatment.

What's the treatment for lower back strain?

Lower back strain can be a painful and depressing injury. But the good news is that most cases heal on their own, given time. To speed up the healing, you should:

  • Ice your back to reduce pain and swelling as soon as you injure yourself. Do it for 20-30 minutes every 3-4 hours for 2-3 days. You can also ice your back after physical activity.
  • Apply heat to your back - but only after 2-3 days of icing it first. Use heat on your back only after the initial swelling has gone down. You could use an electric heating pad or a hot water bottle. Or you could just soak in a hot bath.
  • Take painkillers or other medication, if recommended by your doctor. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen, will help with lower back pain and swelling. However, these drugs may have side effects. They should be used only occasionally, unless your doctor specifically says otherwise. Prescription painkillers and muscle relaxants are sometimes necessary.
  • Use support. Get a belt or girdle to add support to your back.
  • Get physiotherapy to build up strength, if your doctor recommends it.
  • Maintain good muscle tone in your abdominal and lower back muscles.

No matter what people tell you, resting in bed doesn't work. People used to think that the best treatment for lower back strain was to lie on your back until you felt better. But studies show it doesn't help. In fact you should try and remain as active as possible.

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