A pinched nerve in the lower back happens when nearby tissue or bone compresses a nerve in the lower part of the spine. Symptoms of a pinched nerve in the lower back include pain, numbness, burning, or tingling in the lower back, legs, or feet.

A pinched nerve can happen for many reasons.

A herniated disk, for example, is when one of the disks that provide cushioning between the vertebrae bulges out from the spine, pressing on nearby nerves. Another cause, spinal stenosis, is when the passage where nerve fibers pass through the spine narrows.

Injuries, genetic factors, injuries, and various medical conditions can lead to a pinched nerve. A common symptom is sciatic pain, which people often call sciatica.

This article discusses the causes, diagnosis, and treatment of a pinched nerve in the lower back. It also suggests some exercises people can try at home to relieve symptoms.

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Illustration by Maya Chastain 1791302-Pinched Nerve in the Lower Back – What to Know Medical Illustration, lower back, pinched nerve Illustration by Maya Chastain

The spine contains many nerves, which carry signals to the brain. If bones or tissues in the spine press on a nerve, this disrupts the signals. This disruption causes the symptoms of a pinched nerve. In the lower back, a pinched nerve may cause symptoms that extend into the pelvis, legs, and feet.

Pinched nerves can occur suddenly, due to injury, or gradually, due to osteoarthritis and other age-related factors.

When a pinched nerve occurs in the lower back, a person may experience symptoms that radiate to the lower extremities, such as the legs, buttocks, and feet. Some people also call this condition sciatica or radiculopathy.

Symptoms may include:

  • a sharp or burning pain in the lower back or buttocks
  • pain that extends down one leg
  • numbness or tingling
  • muscle weakness, in severe cases

About sciatica

Sciatica is not a condition but a word that describes a type of nerve pain. Sciatic pain happens when a nerve root is compressed in the lower back due to spinal stenosis or a herniated or slipped disk.

Features of sciatic pain include:

  • severe leg cramp
  • a sharp electrical or “knife-like” pain
  • pain that worsens when moving, sneezing, or coughing
  • weakness, tingling, or a burning sensation down the leg

It is most common in people aged 30–50, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

Read about stretches to relieve sciatica.

Symptoms of pinched nerves in the neck

Pinched nerves can also occur in the upper spine and neck. This causes different symptoms.

Symptoms are usually on one side and include:

  • pain that radiates from the shoulder down the arm
  • dull or sharp neck pain
  • pain between the shoulder blades
  • weakness or tingling in one arm
  • an increase in pain with certain positions or neck movements

Read about exercises to relieve a pinched nerve in the neck.

Muscle or nerve pain?

Nerve pain can feel different from other types of back pain. Nerve pain tends to be sharp. It includes sensations of burning, tingling, and numbness. In contrast, muscular pain typically causes muscles and joints to feel stiff, achy, or tender.

If a person has lower back pain that does not affect their legs or feet or does not involve numbness, tingling, or burning sensations, they may have a different type of condition.

Learn more about nerve pain.

There are many possible causes of pinched nerves in the lower back.

These include:

  • injury or inflammation, which may put pressure on the nerves
  • spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal column
  • spondylolisthesis, when a vertebra slips out of place
  • a herniated disk, when the disks between vertebrae become compressed and bulge out
  • an infection in the spinal disks, joints, or bones
  • osteoporosis, which can cause painful fractures

Certain risk factors make someone more likely to develop nerve pain or a pinched nerve in the lower back.

Risk factors include:

  • obesity
  • ageing
  • low levels of physical activity
  • uneven posture

Older age and inactivity may weaken the muscles around the spine and make someone more likely to develop age-related conditions, such as spinal stenosis.

Obesity and uneven posture put additional pressure on the spine, increasing the chance of a nerve becoming compressed.

To diagnose a pinched nerve, a doctor will do a physical exam to test a person’s range of movement and reflexes and determine the site of the pain.

In some cases, they may recommend further tests such as:

  • an MRI scan
  • a CT scan
  • myelography — a CT or MRI scan involving an injectable dye that shows how nerve roots pass through neural passages

The treatment options will depend on the nature of the pain.

Acute or short-term lower back pain often resolves without treatment, but medications can help manage symptoms.

Here are some tips to help with recovery:

Read about the best capsaicin creams.

For severe or chronic pain that does not resolve in a few weeks, a person may need more tests and a different treatment approach.

At this point, a doctor may recommend:

Learn about surgery for a herniated disk.

In addition to rest and pain medication, other steps can help recovery and prevent a pinched nerve from occurring again.

Maintaining a neutral posture while sitting or standing may benefit overall back health. A neutral posture aligns the head and spine, with the ears directly over the shoulders.

Other ways to protect the back include:

  • lifting heavy objects by bending the knees rather than the back
  • avoiding sitting for long periods
  • maintaining a moderate weight
  • stopping smoking, if applicable

At-home exercises may also help people regain strength and range of motion after their back pain has lessened. A physical therapist can provide a person with exercises and stretches tailored to their needs.

However, people should check first with a doctor to ensure exercises are safe. They should not do exercises if they are experiencing pain or if exercises make their symptoms worse.

The following exercises may help during recovery:

Single knee to chest

Lying flat on the back with the legs straight, bring one knee to the chest, hold it there for 15 seconds, and then place it back down. Repeat 5–10 times on each leg.

Lumbar rotation

Lying on the back with the knees bent and the feet flat on the floor, slowly rock the knees from side to side, allowing the back to twist slightly. Repeat 10–15 times.

Cat-cow pose

Start on all fours with the hands and knees shoulder-width apart. Arch the back upward and hold the position briefly before slowly lowering the back into a concave position and holding it there for a moment. Repeat 10–15 times.

Tail wag

On all fours, hold the spine straight, then bend it to one side, drawing the hips toward the ribs. Hold the bend briefly, then repeat the exercise on the other side. Repeat the whole exercise 10–15 times.

Find Six exercises for a herniated disk.

People should seek emergency medical attention if:

  • they have numbness around the pelvic area
  • they lose the ability to urinate or lose bladder or bowel control
  • they lose feeling in one or both legs
  • they have severe or worsening symptoms

These symptoms may indicate:

  • cauda equina syndrome, in which severe nerve compression can lead to long-term complications
  • an epidural abscess
  • a spinal tumor

Anyone experiencing these symptoms after a physical trauma should seek immediate help, as it may indicate a spinal cord injury.

People should also seek help for lower back pain if they have numbness or tingling in the legs or feet that does not improve with rest and over-the-counter (OTC) medications. If the pain worsens or does not resolve within a few weeks, a doctor may recommend further tests or treatments.

Here are some questions people often ask about a pinched nerve.

How do I get rid of a pinched nerve in my lower back?

Rest, OTC pain medication, warm and cool packs, and topical pain relief can often relieve symptoms while the problem heals. In some cases, however, a person may need prescription medication and physical therapy. Some will need surgery.

What does a pinched nerve in the lower back feel like?

Symptoms include pain and tingling. Symptoms may be severe and radiate down the leg. The pain may be sharp, burning, or like electric shocks. There may also be numbness.

Is a pinched nerve in your back serious?

It depends on how severe it is and the cause. Often, the symptoms of a pinched nerve resolve with home remedies, but some people’s symptoms persist and worsen, affecting their mobility and quality of life.

People should seek medical help at once if symptoms appear after an injury, if they lose bowel and bladder control, if they cannot urinate, or if they lose sensation around their pelvis or in their leg.

A pinched nerve in the lower back occurs when surrounding tissue or bone compress nerve fibers. A severe burning pain or tingling may radiate through the lower back, buttocks, legs, or feet.

Treatment options include rest, taking medications to reduce pain and swelling, and physical therapy. In some cases, doctors may recommend steroid injections or surgery.