The most common causes of low back pain are strains and sprains of the lumbar muscles, but what is the difference between a strain and a sprain?
A strain occurs when the muscle fibers are abnormally stretched or torn; whereas, a sprain occurs when the ligaments are torn from their attachments. Differentiating a strain from a sprain can be difficult, as both injuries will show similar symptoms. However, it generally doesn't matter what you call the problem—the treatment approach for both strains and sprains of the low back is the same.
Why are sprains and strains of the low back so common?
The spine is supported by large muscles, the paraspinal muscles, which support the spinal column as well as the weight of the upper body. The five lumbar vertebrae are connected by tough ligaments that help to maintain the position of the spinal column.
These muscles, ligaments, and bones all work together to provide control and strength, which we heavily rely on, as the lumbar spine and its muscles are needed for most all movements and activities. For this reason, the lumbar spine is vulnerable and prone to injury.
The steps to treatment:
Treatment of a lumbar muscle strain or sprain is important to understand. Once you know the cause of your symptoms, you can proceed with treatment. It is important to be evaluated by a physician if you are unsure about the cause of your low back pain—some low back conditions require immediate treatment.
Step 1: Rest
Resting the back allows the inflammation to subside and reduces muscle spasms. Bed rest should begin soon after injury but should not continue beyond about 48 hours, as it’s equally important not to allow the muscle to become weak and stiff. Once the acute inflammation has subsided, simple stretches and exercises should begin (see below).
Step 2: Medications
“Two groups of medications are especially helpful in treating the acute symptoms of a lumbar back strain,” says Dr. William L. Mills, spine surgeon at Coastal Orthopedics. “Anti-inflammatory medications help control the inflammation caused by the injury and also help to reduce pain.” There are many anti-inflammatory options, so talk to your doctor about what medication is appropriate for you.
The second group of medication includes muscle relaxants, and for patients who have back spasm symptoms, this can be a very useful avenue of treatment. These medications are often sedating, however, so discuss their use with your doctor.
Step 3: Physical Therapy/Exercises
Whether you’re trying to avoid a low back injury or recover from it, proper conditioning is critical. Without it, the lumbar muscles can become weak, which makes them more susceptible to injury and makes it more difficult to recover from an existing injury. Stretching and strengthening the back muscles will help to control the inflammation and better condition the lumbar back muscles.
Sometimes, even if you live an active, healthy lifestyle, your low back muscles can be weak. When you have a low back muscle injury, you should perform exercises targeting the muscles of the hips and abdomen in addition to the lower back. These exercises are relatively simple, do not require special equipment, and can be performed at home.
Step 4: Further Evaluation
If symptoms persist despite treatment, visit your doctor for further evaluation. Other causes of back pain should be considered, and X-rays or other studies may be needed to make an accurate diagnosis.
For more information about back injuries and preventative tips, contact the spine specialists at Coastal Orthopedics by calling (843) 484-0976.