Back pain can vary in intensity from a dull ache to a throbbing, burning, or stinging sensation. It may start suddenly as a result of an accident or when lifting something heavy, or it may develop over time as we age. Too little exercise followed by strenuous exercise can also cause back pain. Crouching, twisting, lifting objects, standing or walking can make it worse.
Pressure on one or more nerves that contribute to the sciatic nerve can cause pain, burning, tingling, and numbness that radiate from the buttocks to the leg and sometimes to the foot. It usually affects one side (left or right). This pain is often described as sharp and like an electric shock. It may be more serious when standing, walking, or sitting.
Along with leg pain, the patient may experience lower back pain. Using the term radiculopathy may be more appropriate, rather than using the term sciatica, since all leg pain is not necessarily “sciatica”. Chronic back pain is generally treated with a tiered care approach, moving from simple, low-cost treatments to more aggressive approaches. Heat and ice treatment is indicated at home as needed to treat sudden flare-ups of low back pain, along with anti-inflammatory medications.
Chiropractors and some osteopathic doctors may try to move the joints in the spine to treat low back pain. Working at a desk all day can cause pain, especially from poor posture or from sitting in a chair without enough back support. If your job involves lifting, pulling, or anything that twists your spine, this can contribute to back pain. Epidural steroid injections in the lower back area are given to treat low back pain and sciatica associated with inflammation.
In addition to the NINDS, other NIH institutes such as the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health fund research on low back pain. Different studies are looking at the response to placebos in people with acute and chronic back pain. In addition, several studies are being carried out to identify and characterize the bidirectional neural circuits that communicate between the spinal cord and the brain, with the aim of discovering and validating new interventional targets for low back pain. Another study evaluates ibuprofen plus paracetamol compared to ibuprofen plus placebo in the treatment of acute low back pain.
Occasionally, the cause of chronic low back pain is difficult to determine even after a thorough examination. For example, a study is designed to examine the brain properties of the placebo response and critically evaluate the neurobiology of placebo pain relief in people with chronic pain. Anyone with persistent low back pain will want to schedule an appointment with their doctor who can then examine them to determine the cause of the pain. If long-term back pain interferes with your daily life and other treatments haven't provided relief, you may be a candidate for surgery.
If you have back pain, talk to your doctor or physical therapist about exercises that are safe for you. Because pain radiates to other parts of the body it can be difficult for a person to self-diagnose and understand the true cause of their pain.