Low back pain (LBP) can arise from disks, nerves, joints, and the surrounding soft tissues. To simplify the task of determining “What is causing my LBP?” the Quebec Task Force recommends that LBP be divided into three main categories: 1) Mechanical LBP; 2) Nerve root related back pain; and 3) Pathology or fracture. We will address the first two, as they are most commonly managed by chiropractors.
Making the proper diagnosis points your doctor in the right direction regarding treatment. It avoids time wasted by treating an unrelated condition, which runs the risk of increased chances of a poor and/or prolonged recovery. Low back pain is no exception! The “correct” diagnosis allows treatment to be focused and specific so that it will yield the best results.
Mechanical low back pain is the most commonly seen type of back pain, and it encompasses pain that arises from sprains, strains, facet and sacroiliac (SI) syndromes, and more. The main difference between this and nerve root-related LBP is the ABSENCE of a pinched nerve. Hence, pain typically does NOT radiate, and if it does, it rarely goes beyond the knee and normally does not cause weakness in the leg.
The mechanism of injury for both types of LBP can occur when a person does too much, maintains an awkward position for too long, or over bends, lifts, and/or twists. However, LBP can also occur “insidiously” or for seemingly no reason at all. However, in most cases, if one thinks hard enough, they can identify an event or a series of “micro-traumas” extending back in time that may be the “cause” of their current low back pain issues.
Nerve root-related LBP is less common but it is often more severe—as the pain associated with a pinched nerve is often very sharp, can radiate down a leg often to the foot, and cause numbness, tingling, and muscle weakness. The location of the weakness depends on which nerve is pinched. Think of the nerve as a wire to a light and the switch of the nerve is located in the back where it exits the spine. When the switch is turned on (the nerve is pinched), and the “light” turns on—possibly in the outer foot, middle foot, inner foot, or front, back or side of the thigh. In fact, there are seven nerves that innervate or “run” into our leg, so usually, a very specific location “lights up” in the limb.
Determining the cause of your low back pain helps your doctor of chiropractic determine which treatments may work best to alleviate your pain as well as where such treatments can be focused.