Search the site

Part I: Creating Hope for Tomorrow

Oh, My Aching Back: Low Back Pain
by Professor Visser, Churack Chair of Pain Management

Chronic low back pain (pain for more than three months) is one of the most common reasons for visiting a GP, physiotherapist or pain clinic. Ten per cent of the population, that’s 2.2 million Australians, are living with low back pain at this very moment.

Low back pain is often triggered by a back strain or overuse (such as heavy lifting) or sometimes a falI. In older persons back pain may be due to arthritis in the spine. Some people also experience leg pain caused by the irritation of nerves going to leg by a protruding disc in the spine (this is called ‘sciatica’ or ‘spinal stenosis’).

Making a diagnosis

Because there are so many structures in the back (discs, facet joints, muscles, ligaments), in 90 per cent of cases we can’t pinpoint the exact cause of a person’s back pain, and even in the 21st century, there’s no ‘gold standard’ test, x-ray or scan to make the diagnosis.

Some people show a lot of changes (‘degeneration’) on their spinal x-rays but only report minor back pain; others have ‘perfect’ looking x-rays and complain of lots of pain. Both situations are acceptable.

In the end, finding the exact cause your back pain isn’t really important and won’t usually affect how it is managed. 

90 per cent of low back pain settles in a few days-to-weeks, without special tests or treatments.  However, if your back pain is getting worse, or if you experience a new problem controlling your legs, bladder or bowels, let your doctor know immediately.

In these situations your doctor may order blood tests, x-rays or scans to rule out ‘red flags’ (important but rare medical conditions we don’t want to miss), such as a nerve compression, fractured bones or very rarely cancer or infection.


The good news is….Over 90 per cent of people with low back pain do not have a serious ‘red flag’ condition.


 

Next in the series...Managing Back Pain


Disclaimer: General information only–not intended as specific clinical advice or treatment. The author cannot take responsibility for any outcomes related to this information. Always see your health care professional if you have concerns about your back pain.

 
If you have any questions about this series of research findings please contact:
ewithers@scrosswa.org.au
or visit http://www.nd.edu.au/fremantle/schools/medicine/churack-chair