The short, and obvious, answer to this question is, “when it hurts.” At least, that is how we feel when it is our own lower back that is in pain. Pain in the lumbar region is, at the very least, an inconvenience, and at the worst, it can be debilitating, so at what point on that spectrum is it appropriate to seek medical attention? There are several factors to consider…
How did you hurt it?
If your back pain is the result of a fall, an accident of some kind, or a severe strain from lifting something you shouldn’t have, it may be advisable to seek medical attention right away. If however, the pain is the result of muscle fatigue after a workout, having slept wrong, or some other, less traumatic irritation, it may be advisable to wait a few days before going to the doctor. If however, the pain persists for more than three consecutive days, it is probably time to make that appointment, and pay a visit to your medical professional.
Is it affecting other bodily functions?
If your back pain is so severe that it is causing problems elsewhere in your body, it is a pretty good indication that something more serious may be going on. If coughing causes you pain to spike, if you find that your legs are weak as a result of the pain, if you find that you are losing control of your bladder or bowels, you should definitely seek medical attention as soon as possible. It is unlikely that these related problems would be caused by simple muscle strain, and such severe complications are a clear sign that something more is going on.
What should I do if I decide not to go?
If your pain isn’t such that you need to go to the doctor right away that doesn’t mean you have to suffer in silence. There are a number of home treatments you can try that may alleviate some of the discomfort that you are feeling.
- Over the counter pain medication like acetaminophen, naproxen, or ibuprofen can be helpful in minimizing, if not eliminating your pain. Ibuprofen, in particular, can be helpful because it not only reduces pain, but also treats swelling which can be a contributing factor to your discomfort.
- Warm it up. A hot bath, or a heating pad can offer some comfort to relieve a back ache caused my muscle strain. Add some bath salts to that warm bath to help reduce both stress and swelling and make it a relaxing experience. And, if you don’t own a heating pad, and do not want to buy one, a tube sock filled with rice and heated for a few minutes in your microwave can be a great substitute; just don’t heat it for too long as the rice can get too hot and burn either itself, or you! Be sure to exercise good judgment when applying heat to your sore and tired muscles.
- Alternative treatments, such as massage therapy, chiropractic care, or even acupuncture, can provide some relief, and in some cases may eliminate the back pain all together, making them well worth your consideration.
Why does it hurt, and what will the doctor do?
There are many possible answers to this question. Causes of lower back pain vary widely. Muscle strain, sciatica; herniated, bulging, or ruptured discs are just a few possible conditions that can cause lower back pain. When you go to the doctor there are a number of tests that can be performed such as a CT scan, an MRI, or a simple x-ray can give your doctor a great deal of information about the cause of your back pain; however, these may not be necessary as your doctor can tell a great deal from simply examining you, and listening to your description of what you are feeling. When you talk to your doctor, be very specific, and provide the doctor with as much detail as you can regarding the type, and extent of your pain. Once the doctor determines what is causing the pain, a course of action can be prescribed ranging from simple therapeutic exercises and prescription pain medication, to nerve block injections using steroids, or even surgery.
How to avoid the pain in the first place…
There are a number of risk factors that can contribute to lower back pain, and some of them are completely avoidable, or correctable, with some simple changes. Leading an inactive lifestyle, being overweight, heavy lifting, or lifting in the wrong manner, can all be contributing factors that cause back pain, as can sitting for long periods of time in the same position at your desk. To avoid, or minimize the risk and severity, of lower back pain you should employee some, or all, of these strategies:
- Practice good posture when sitting at your desk.
- Get up and move; taking frequent stand up and stretch breaks can help your muscles relieve tension and increase blood flow.
- Lose weight. Even losing a little weight can help. Modify your diet, and get that body moving. Regular moderate exercise, combined with some simple changes in your diet can go a long way toward making you feel better.
- If you must lift something, do not lift with your back, and if the object is heavy, get some help. Many hands make a light load, and many back injuries result from someone trying to lift something by themselves when they should have asked for help. It is far better to ask for a little help once in a while, than to have to deal with chronic back pain that can last for weeks, months, or even years.