What can cause lower back and leg pain?
In this article, we discuss some of the potential causes of lower back and leg pain. We also cover when to see a doctor.
Sprains and strains
Sprains and strains are a common cause of lower back and leg pain.
Sprains and strains to the muscles of the lower back can cause pain. Sometimes, this pain may radiate to the buttocks or restrict a person's range of motion. Strains and sprains can also lead to muscle spasms.
Sprains and strains in the lower back can result from sports injuries, overusing or overstretching the back, or lifting heavy objects improperly.
A person can often treat back strains and sprains at home with rest, ice or heat packs, gentle stretching, and over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers, such as ibuprofen and naproxen.
Doctors may recommend physical therapy for people with more severe symptoms.
Poor posture when standing or sitting, particularly while working at a desk or computer, can stress the back over time, which can lead to lower back pain or increase the risk of developing conditions that can cause back and leg problems.
Steps that a person can take to reduce and prevent lower back pain include:
- exercising regularly
- practicing good posture when sitting and standing. Learn about how to improve posture here.
- taking frequent breaks from desks, computers, and workstations by getting up and stretching or walking around
- ensuring the appropriate setup of workstations to include a supportive and properly-adjusted chair
- using proper techniques for lifting and not carrying objects that are too heavy
- reaching or maintaining a healthful weight
Possible symptoms of fibromyalgia include headaches and fatigue.
Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition that causes widespread stiffness and pain, which can affect the back and legs. People may find that this pain comes and goes in cycles or gets worse over time.
Other symptoms of fibromyalgia can include:
- increased sensitivity to pain and temperature
- memory and concentration problems, which people sometimes refer to as "fibro fog"
- depression and anxiety
- numbness or tingling in the hands and feet
- sleeping difficulties
- digestive issues
The right treatment varies from person to person, but options can include:
- medications, including pain relievers and antidepressants
- physical and occupational therapy
- cognitive behavioral therapy
- relaxation therapies, including massage, meditation, and yoga
- lifestyle changes
Research into effective treatment options continues, and many people with fibromyalgia try several treatments before they find one that works for them.
Arthritis is a group of conditions that cause the joints to become inflamed and painful. Joint inflammation in the lower spine or hips can cause pain in the lower back, which may also radiate into the legs.
The most common forms of arthritis include:
- osteoarthritis, which is the gradual wearing down of joint cartilage over time
- rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis, which are conditions in which the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy joints
Arthritis symptoms can vary greatly, but they typically include red, swollen joints and reduced mobility. Symptoms may also come and go in cycles or get worse over time.
The treatment plan will depend on the type of arthritis and the severity of a person's symptoms, but it will often include a combination of lifestyle changes, physical therapy, and medication. For people with severe arthritis, a doctor may also sometimes recommend surgery.
Sciatica is a sharp, burning or stabbing pain in the lower back that radiates through the buttocks and down into the back of the legs. A person may also experience a tingling sensation, numbness, or weakness in the legs.
Sciatica often gets better on its own, and a person may be able to treat it at home with rest, OTC pain relievers, and gentle stretching. If these treatments are ineffective, a doctor may recommend physical therapy, steroid injections, or surgery.
Infections of the spine or the surrounding tissues can lead to back pain and tenderness. If the infection irritates or damages the spinal nerves, this may cause pain or tingling sensations that radiate down to the legs.
Other symptoms of a spinal infection can include fever, chills, and swelling, redness, or warmth in the affected area.
Spinal infections can occur if infections from other parts of the body spread to the spine. They can also occur as a complication of surgery, injuries to the back, diabetes, cancer, and conditions that weaken the immune system.
The causative organism will determine the treatment, which may include antibiotic or antifungal medications. Other treatments can include surgical drainage or removal of infected tissue.
Physical therapy may help to treat ankylosing spondylitis.
Ankylosing spondylitis is a chronic condition in which the joints and vertebrae in the spine become inflamed, which causes back pain and stiffness. The condition can also spread to other parts of the body, including the ribs, hips, knees, and feet.
Other symptoms of ankylosing spondylitis can include:
- reduced flexibility of the spine
- reduced mobility
- swelling and warmth in affected joints
- painful or difficult breathing
Doctors do not understand what causes ankylosing spondylitis, but people with certain genes are more likely to develop the condition.
There is no cure for ankylosing spondylitis, so doctors focus treatment on relieving a person's symptoms and preventing the condition from getting worse.
Treatment typically involves a combination of medications, physical therapy, and lifestyle changes. A doctor may recommend surgery for people with severe joint damage.
When to see a doctor
A person can often treat back and leg pain at home with rest, OTC medications, and gentle exercise or stretching.
Consult a doctor if the pain:
- is severe
- steadily worsens or does not respond to home treatment
- spreads to other areas of the body
- occurs along with other symptoms, such as diarrhea, dizziness, or vomiting
People should seek immediate medical assistance if they also have symptoms such as:
- very severe pain
- sudden swelling in the leg or foot
- chest pain
- difficulty moving or walking
- loss of bowel or bladder control
Lower back and leg pain are often the result of minor injuries or poor posture, and the pain tends to get better with rest and home treatments. However, persistent or recurring pain may be a symptom of an underlying condition, such as arthritis or fibromyalgia.
People should see a doctor for pain that is severe, does not improve, or occurs along with other symptoms.
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