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Why Does My Lower Back Hurt?

Old man hunched forward with back pain

At one point or another, roughly 80 percent of people will experience pain in the lower back that is significant enough to limit activity. It's a very common issue and one that is relatively easy to deal with. Yet, lower back pain can still cause an inordinate amount of worry. For the most part, lower back pain is no cause for concern and often goes away on its own.

Stay Active

Most lower back pain goes away with little to no effort within a few weeks. Julie M. Fritz, PT, PhD, FAPTA, recommends simply staying active: "They used to recommend bed rest for back pain, but now we know that back pain improves more quickly when people resume normal activity and engage in light exercise."

Since the vast majority of back pain is caused by overuse of a muscle or injury to soft tissue (such as a bruise), there is little that a doctor can do to help aside from suggesting a painkiller. Some people worry about pain and want to have an X-ray or MRI just to be sure nothing more serious is happening, but doctors recommend against this. As Fritz explains, "it's hard to pinpoint the exact cause of the pain, and it tends to cause anxiety in the patient with no real solution."

When to See a Doctor

There are times when the cause of lower back pain makes it necessary to see a doctor. You should go to a doctor if:

  • You have been injured by trauma, such as a fall or a car accident.
  • If the pain persists for more than two to four weeks.
  • The pain radiates down the leg into the foot.
  • The pain is accompanied by loss of bowel and/or bladder control.
  • You have cancer or have previously suffered from cancer.

Few of these require visiting an emergency room. Usually, a visit with a general practitioner will suffice.