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Low Back Pain and Sciatica
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What is Low Back Pain and Sciatica?

Low Back Pain

Low back pain is an ache or discomfort in the area of the lower part of the spinal column that may radiate down into one or both legs. The lower spinal column consists of small, stacked bones (the vertebrae) that surround and protect the spinal cord and nerves.

Cross-section of Vertebral Canal with Spinal Cord in the Center
Cross-section of Vertebral Canal with Spinal Cord in the Center
© 2009 Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

There are many possible causes for low back pain, including:

  • Sprain or strain of muscles or ligaments in the area
  • Herniated disc or ruptured disc—the cushions between the bones of the spine bulge out of place as a result of age-related changes or trauma.
  • Disc degeneration—caused by arthritis or by the wear and tear of living plus aging
  • Lumbar spinal stenosis —bony narrowing of the spinal canal in the low...

A risk factor is something that increases your likelihood of getting a disease or condition.

It is possible to develop low back pain or sciatica with or without the risk factors listed below. However, the more risk factors you have, the greater your likelihood of developing low back pain or sciatica. If you have a number of risk factors, ask your doctor what you can do to reduce your risk. Some back pain treatments can be helpful in preventing the onset of low back pain.

Risk factors include:

Sedentary Job or Lifestyle

Muscles that support the back can become weak with lack of exercise.


Work that requires the following motions puts additional stress on the back:

  • Heavy lifting
  • Bending or twisting
  • Exposure to vibrations,...

Most back pain is usually localized in the low back. Stress on the muscles and ligaments that support the spine produces strain in these tissues, and this is the usual cause of lower back pain, although there can be other, more serious causes. There exist many treatments for low back pain.

If a nerve is irritated, the pain may extend into the buttock or leg on the affected side, and weakness or numbness may be present. Other symptoms include burning, tingling or a shooting pain down the back of one leg. This is often called “sciatica.” However, the nerve involved is usually a spinal nerve, and not the sciatic nerve. Sciatica is known by many other medical terms, such as lumbosacral radicular pain or radiculopathy.

Sciatic Nerve Pain
Sciatic Nerve Pain
© 2009 Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

More serious symptoms...

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. In particular, your back, hips, and legs and will be tested for strength, flexibility, sensation, and reflexes.

Often, patients with pain may feel an urgent need to have a medical test. It is important to understand that medical tests are not routinely required for back pain and sciatica. Most episodes of acute back pain resolve on their own over several weeks, especially with some natural treatments. In these cases, the information from an x-ray or MRI may not change the medical plan, and so these tests may be unnecessary. An MRI or x-ray is usually ordered if there is a plan to do a procedure or surgery, based on the result of the images. Studies of medical...

You can reduce your risk of developing low back pain and sciatica by reducing the stress on your back. Guidelines for reducing stress on your back include:

  • Support your back when lifting, standing, and sitting.
  • Practice good posture.
  • Lose weight if you are overweight.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • If you smoke, quit.
  • Manage stress.

Support Your Back When Lifting, Standing, and Sitting

Guidelines include:

  • Do not lift heavy objects alone.
  • Plan ahead and ask for assistance with lifting or moving heavy objects.
  • When lifting, squat down next to the object, hold the object close to your chest, maintain a straight back, and use your leg muscles to slowly rise.
  • Do not bend or twist your back.
  • Avoid sitting for long periods. When you do...

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons


6300 N River RD
Rosemont, Illinois 60018-4262



Internet address:

Description of services provided:

This website provides information about back care, exercises to strengthen the back and abdomen, proper lifting techniques, and back surgery.

American Association of Neurological Surgeons


5550 Meadowbrook DR
Rolling Meadows, IL 60008

Internet address:

Description of services provided:

This website provides information about back care and back surgery.

National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases


Information Clearinghouse ...

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