Frequently Asked Questions

Acute Low Back Pain, Ambulatory Care

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Acute low back pain

is discomfort in your lower back area that lasts for less than 12 weeks. The word acute is used to describe pain that starts suddenly, worsens quickly, and lasts for a short time.

Common symptoms include the following:

  • Back stiffness or spasms

  • Pain down the back or side of one leg

  • Holding yourself in an unusual position or posture to decrease your back pain

  • Not being able to find a sitting position that is comfortable

  • Slow increase in your pain for 24 to 48 hours after you stress your back

  • Tenderness on your lower back or severe pain when you move your back

Seek immediate care for the following symptoms:

  • Severe pain

  • Sudden stiffness and heaviness in both buttocks down to both legs

  • Numbness or weakness in one leg, or pain in both legs

  • Numbness in your genital area or across your lower back

  • Unable to control your urine or bowel movements

Treatment for acute low back pain

may include any of the following:

  • Medicines:

    • NSAIDs help decrease swelling and pain or fever. This medicine is available with or without a doctor's order. NSAIDs can cause stomach bleeding or kidney problems in certain people. If you take blood thinner medicine, always ask your healthcare provider if NSAIDs are safe for you. Always read the medicine label and follow directions.

    • Muscle relaxers help decrease muscle spasms pain.

    • Prescription pain medicine may be given. Ask how to take this medicine safely.

  • Surgery may be needed if your pain is severe and other treatments do not work. Surgery may be needed for conditions of the lumbar spine, such as herniated disc or spinal stenosis.

Manage your symptoms:

  • Sleep on a firm mattress. If you do not have a firm mattress, have someone move your mattress to the floor for a few days. A piece of plywood under your mattress can also help make it firmer.

  • Apply ice on your lower back for 15 to 20 minutes every hour or as directed. Use an ice pack, or put crushed ice in a plastic bag. Cover it with a towel. Ice helps prevent tissue damage and decreases swelling and pain. You can alternate ice and heat.

  • Apply heat on your lower back for 20 to 30 minutes every 2 hours for as many days as directed. Heat helps decrease pain and muscle spasms.

  • Go to physical therapy. A physical therapist teaches you exercises to help improve movement and strength, and to decrease pain.

Prevent acute low back pain:

  • Use proper body mechanics.

    • Bend at the hips and knees when you pick up objects. Do not bend from the waist. Use your leg muscles as you lift the load. Do not use your back. Keep the object close to your chest as you lift it. Try not to twist or lift anything above your waist.

    • Change your position often when you stand for long periods of time. Rest one foot on a small box or footrest, and then switch to the other foot often.

    • Try not to sit for long periods of time. When you do, sit in a straight-backed chair with your feet flat on the floor. Never reach, pull, or push while you are sitting.

  • Exercise regularly. Warm up before you exercise. Do exercises that strengthen your back muscles. Ask about the best exercise plan for you.

  • Maintain a healthy weight. Ask your healthcare provider how much you should weigh. Ask him to help you create a weight loss plan if you are overweight.

Follow up with your healthcare provider as directed:

Return for a follow-up visit if you still have pain after 1 to 3 weeks of treatment. You may need to visit an orthopedist if your back pain lasts more than 6 to 12 weeks. Write down your questions so you remember to ask them during your visits.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2014 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

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