Approximately 85% of Americans will experience some form of lower back pain. While it may seem like such a high prevalence of back pain must mean most people are dealing with the same problems, the reality is that a variety of underlying conditions can cause lower back pain. This article will explore two of the most common causes, back sprains and herniated discs, and give you the information you need to take the next steps in relieving pain.

What is a Back Sprain?

Back sprains occur when one of the ligaments that hold the bones of the lower back together over stretches. In severe cases, this stretching can result in a tear of the ligament. While there is overlap in the way you can manage pain caused from both, a back sprain differs from back strains in that a strain involves either the muscles or tendons of the lower back, not the ligaments.

Lumbar muscle strains are likely to occur during physical activity.  They happen as a result of the muscles in the lower back pulling in a strange position.  Strains may come about slowly as a result of overuse. By contrast, sprains are typically caused by sudden trauma like accidents, heavy impacts, falls, and intense twisting of the lower back.  These events may cause your ligaments to stretch beyond their natural capacity, resulting in a sprain. You will likely feel a popping sensation if a sprain occurs. Symptoms of a lower back sprain include:

  • Pain that gets worse with movement
  • Muscle tightness and cramps
  • Limited range of motion in the affected joint

In many cases, the pain associated with sprains will subside as the ligament heals, though this may be a lengthy process.

What is a Herniated Disc?

There are discs between the vertebrae, so when one starts to come out from between those bones, it is called a herniated disc. Because of the location of these discs, the protrusion may also impact some nerves. The pain associated with this kind of injury is typically not from the disc, but from the nerves being compressed by the ruptured disc. Herniation of the lumbar discs can occur from both physical activity and trauma, as both can cause excessive pressure on the disc. Symptoms of a herniated disc include:

  • Numbness in the limbs
  • Muscle weakness
  • Pain that radiates into the limbs
  • Constant pain
  • Pain with spinal movement

While surgery is often necessary to heal this type of injury, there are alternative ways to treat a herniated disc.

Differences in Treatment

While both back sprains and herniated discs can result in lower back pain, we treat them differently. If you have the former, treatment will likely involve resting the affected area, using heat and cold on the lower back, as well as massage and gentle stretching to increase mobility.

Also, over-the-counter medications sometimes relieve pain and reduce inflammation, though you should use them sparingly. You likely will not need surgery, but you should still contact a doctor to get a proper diagnosis and treatment plan for your sprain.

Herniated discs tend to require more intensive treatment, as it is uncommon for discs to heal themselves. In both cases, you should be proactive and seek treatment as soon as possible following the injury. Expedient treatment will allow you to recover quickly and get you back to a healthy, pain-free life.




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