Lower Back Sprain

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Young woman lifting a barbel. Incorrect lifting technique in these situations can lead to lower back sprains.

A lower back sprain is an injury caused by a damaged ligament in the lower back or lumbar area. The lower back area is generally regarded as the region below the ribcage. It contains the spinal cord as well as a complex and tightly interlinked network of muscles, ligaments, nerves and bones.

It can therefore be difficult to distinguish between the symptoms of a low back sprain and those of a  strain (for example).

A lower back sprain is sometimes also referred to as a lumbar sprain.

Lumbar sprains tend to produce symptoms that are very similar to those of lower back strains. They both cause an aching pain in the lower back. The pain may be focused on one side of the back or the other.

Like lower back strains, lower back sprains are a common type of injury. However, they are usually easily treatable by a regime of home based self care. Surgical intervention is usually not needed.

Types Of Lower Back Sprain

As with other types of ligament sprain, there are three categories of severity of lower back sprains:

  • Type I, involving overstretching of back ligaments with no tearing;
  • A Type II sprain, in which the ligament is partially torn but not completely severed;
  • Type III sprains, involving a complete rupture of the ligament.

Risk Factors

The following groups tend to be at higher risk of experiencing a lower back sprain:

  • Individuals who do a lot of bending, lifting or twisting. This may be a result of their occupational duties, recreational pursuits or involvement in a sport that requires these movements.
  • Individuals who lift heavy objects are especially at risk of getting this injury if they lift with improper technique. Specifically, lifting heavy objects by bending the back rather than the knees puts the strain of the weight on the lower back.
  • Individuals who have poor posture habits. Many individuals tend to stand or sit with their shoulders slouched forward. Unfortunately, this places much of the weight of the upper body on the lumbar spine. Over time, this excess stress on the lower back ligaments can weaken them and cause a sprain;
  • Individuals who lead inactive lifestyles with little or no exercise are also at risk of back sprains. Over time, the lack of exercise produces back ligaments and muscles that are weak. This means that they can be easily damaged if there is a sudden need to move a piece of furniture, for example/

Symptoms Of A Lower Back Sprain

Those affected by lower back sprains will experience some or all of the following:

  • An aching pain in the lower back region. The pain may in certain cases be limited to one side of the back or another;
  • The may also be accompanied by swelling;
  • Difficulty bending, twisting or standing up straight;

These symptoms can also be signs of more serious back problems. As a result, one should not assume the presence of a back soft tissue injury because the symptoms resemble those above. The wise course of action is to make an appointment with a healthcare professional for medical advice.

Diagnosis

To diagnose the cause of lower back pain, a doctor will review the patient’s medical history. He or she will also perform a physical examination of the lower back and surrounding areas.

The goal will be to evaluate the nature and severity of the pain. This will include its precise location and what movements make it worse. The patient may also asked when the pain started and what he or she was doing at the time.

In many cases, the doctor may not immediately request imaging scans. The exception would be if he or she suspects the presence of a more serious problem (such as a herniated disc or tumour). Otherwise, the first option will be to suggest a period of home based conservative care .

Home Based Treatment Of Lower Back Sprains

As part of a regime of home based care, most doctors will suggest something like the following:

  • A period of reduced activity with avoidance of tasks that may stress the back (heavy lifting, for example);
  • However, the patient will likely be advised to avoid bed rest. This may excessively weaken the back muscles and increase the risk of another lower back sprain in the future;
  • Applying ice or a cold compress to the painful area every two hours or so. This will help to reduce pain and swelling. It should be applied for periods of around 20 minutes at a time until any swelling has receded;
  • Once the swelling has gone down, the patient can switch to applying heat therapy to the painful area. Either a hot compress or heating pad such as the Theratherm can be used for this purpose. This will boost blood flow through the region and promote more rapid healing;
  • Use of pain medications such as Advil for additional control of pain. Anti inflammatory drugs such as Ibuprofen may also be effective in reducing the pain of either a strained or sprained back;

Once your back shows clear signs of improvement, many doctors will suggest enrolment in a physical therapy program. This will include back strengthening exercises that increase the patient’s ability to perform strenuous tasks with less risk of another lumbar sprain.

Another device that may help to reduce the risk of another sprain is a back belt or lower back brace. It will provide some additional lumbar support that will be useful when lifting heavy loads, for example.

The doctor may believe that poor posture may have contributed to the back sprain. If so, he or she may recommend the use of a posture brace. This device will help the patient to develop the habit of maintaining good posture.

Recovering From A Lower Back Sprain

The time required to recover from this type of injury depends on the severity of the injury. It will also depend on the fitness level of the patient.

It also depends on the patient’s adherence to the treatment guidelines. He or she will need to be patient and disciplined enough to not return to regular activity prematurely. In general, the patient should seek the doctor’s advice before resuming regular activities. He should definitely not do so until complete freedom of movement has returned with no pain.

In most cases, recovery from a mild lower back sprain can require as little as one or two weeks. A more serious injury may require as many as 6 weeks or more before the patient can contemplate a return to regular activity.

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