What is lumbago?

Lumbago is a general term used to describe pain in the lumbar region, or lower back. It is defined as a mild to severe pain or discomfort in the area of the lower back. Ranging in severity from acute (i.e. sudden and severe) to chronic (if it has lasted for more than three months) lumbago can occur in any age group, but is common among younger people who engage in hard physical work and also among people of retirement age.

What are the symptoms of lumbago?

If you are suffering from lumbago, some or all of the following symptoms may be present:

  • Mild to severe pain across the lower part of the back which sometimes travels into the buttocks, the groin area or down into the back of the thigh. This pain is usually aggravated by movement.
  • A stiff neck, which is caused by the muscles surrounding the spine going into spasm.
  • Difficulty in bending forward and leaning back. Again this is caused by spasms in the muscles surrounding the spine.
  • There may be a change in posture (e.g. leaning to one side) due to the severe pain and spasms in the lower back.
  • There may sometimes be a tingling sensation or a feeling of numbness in the back, buttocks or down along one or both legs.

What causes it?

Identifying the exact cause of lumbago is very difficult. It can be caused by a variety of conditions such as a slipped disc, scoliosis (deformation of the natural curvature of the spine), osteoporosis (brittle bone disease) or, more rarely, by tumours or infection in the spinal area. It is usually only possible to pinpoint the exact cause of lumbago in about 30% of cases. The majority of those where another cause is not found are believed to be due to muscle sprain.

What are the warning signs?

The main warning signs to look out for, and which warrant urgent investigation by your GP, are:

  • A sudden inability to control bladder or bowel movements.
  • A feeling of numbness or tingling in the area of the lower back, buttocks or legs.
  • A dull, aching pain in the lower back which is accompanied by reduced strength or muscle bulk in one or both legs.

How is lumbago diagnosed?

In the majority of cases, your GP will be able to diagnose the problem on the basis of the information supplied by you, the patient. It is seldom necessary to take X-rays, scans or blood tests unless your GP feels there is a more serious underlying cause for the pain.

Can lumbago be treated at home?

There are a number of practical steps which can be taken at home to reduce back pain. These include:

But what if my lumbago is chronic?

Chronic lumbago is defined as backache which has persisted for more than three months, and obviously this type of pain will have an effect on your life. It is difficult to ascertain what type of treatment is most suitable for chronic back pain, but a range of treatments will probably be applied in the hope that one will succeed in relieving the pain. Unfortunately, some patients fail to find long-lasting relief from chronic back pain for a number of reasons.

Treatments which may be helpful include physiotherapy, a graded exercise programme and swimming. Some people with chronic low back pain find massage helpful.

What are the future prospects?

The prospects for sufferers of lumbago are good provided early treatment is sought and the patient remains as active as possible.

The vast majority of people are born with a healthy spinal column, which continues to perform heroically throughout the average lifespan, despite the fact that it is very often abused. It is a well-known fact that weak back and stomach muscles can contribute significantly to the risk of developing back pain. Therefore, it is essential that a programme of moderate exercise to strengthen these muscles is embarked upon.

Prevention is the key when dealing with the back, as very often it is too late to try to protect the back after the damage has been done.

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