Low back pain is a common problem. It can be caused by muscular tightness, disc injuries, or from compression on a nerve. The cause of back pain should always be properly diagnosed as different injuries call for different treatment plans. A pinched nerve in the lower back can cause many symptoms and complications if not managed properly.
Anatomy of the Spine
The spine is made up of bones called vertebrae that help to support the body and create a covering for the nerves that run through the spinal column. These nerves are responsible for transmitting signals from the brain to the rest of the body. Between the vertebrae are discs that provide a cushion and absorb shock. Muscles and ligaments are attached to the vertebrae to help the spine bend and twist. Injuries or diseases to any of the above structures can pinch a nerve anywhere along the spine, including the lower back.
When a nerve is pinched or compressed, signals will not be able to get through properly. This can happen for several reasons. If a disc in the lower spine becomes herniated or moves out of place, it can pinch nearby nerves. Changes to the vertebrae due to arthritis and other conditions may reduce the space through which the nerves travel, which can pinch them. Tight muscles, inflammation from injury or disease, and extra weight on the spine due to obesity can all compress nerves in the lower back. Nerves can also be temporarily pinched due to poor posture. If the cause is identified and the pressure is removed, normal nerve function can return. If the condition continues untreated, it can cause chronic symptoms.
Symptoms of a pinched nerve in the lower back can be mild or severe, depending on how much the nerve is compressed. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke states that pain can be localized in the lower back, or it can radiate down the legs and into the feet. The pain may or may not be accompanied by sensations of tingling or numbness. These symptoms may be present constantly or just occur with certain movements or positions. A severely pinched nerve in the low back can cause weakness in the legs and a loss of bladder or bowel function, which requires prompt medical attention.
The University of Washington suggests rest and medication to control the pain and inflammation. Steroid injections are the next step, when oral medication is not enough. Physical therapy can help gently strengthen and stretch the muscles of the low back. Physical therapy also provides education in proper body mechanics and posture to help control symptoms and prevent the condition from getting worse. Changes to daily activities may be required to prevent exacerbating the symptoms. Losing excess weight will also help to take pressure off the nerves. In cases where symptoms are severe and affect quality of life, surgery may be necessary. This can include removing all or part of a disc or bone compressing the nerve.
The sooner treatment is started after the symptoms appear, the better the outcome. Most cases of a pinched nerve in the lower back are acute and resolve with time, allowing for a return to normal function. The time it takes to heal varies greatly depending on the underlying cause and general health of the patient. However, some cases can become chronic and symptoms may come and go throughout life. For anyone who's had a pinched nerve in the lower back, it's wise to stay with a treatment plan and avoid activities that place stress on the lower back.