Article reviewed and approved by Dr. Ibtissama Boukas, physician specializing in family medicine
You woke up feeling like your lower back was locked up. Maybe your lumbago came on after a wrong move, or after lifting a heavier load than usual. In some cases, the onset of pain is completely unpredictable and unexpected.
Anyway, you have very bad back pain, and want to end this pain crisis as soon as possible. Good news: In this article, you will find ALL the tools to manage lumbago (sleeping positions, quick treatment, homeopathy, exercises, etc.). If you want to relieve your lumbago as quickly as possible, it's here!
Locked lower back: Definition of a lumbago
Lumbago, blocked back, kidney tower, lumbar sprain, acute low back pain… all these qualifiers are used to designate the same thing. In general, lumbago refers to damage to the musculoskeletal structures (such as a ligament, muscle, tendon) in the lumbar region. Unlike the sciatica, there is no nerve damage.
It can be an overstretching of a back muscle, a muscle spasm, joint irritation, or even a ligament micro tear. Either way, lumbago comes with an inflammatory process responsible for your pain, and the “stuck” back feeling.
On the other hand, you should not think that your back is "blocked" in the proper sense, or that your vertebrae have moved. It's a myth (more explanations in this article). The feeling of blockage specific to lumbago comes mainly from the fact that the pain alters the perception of one's body in space, and limits all movements.
How to diagnose un lumbago?
It may be thought that a medical imaging test such as an X-ray or CT scan can diagnose lumbago. However, you should know that X-rays are not useful for detecting a problem with soft tissues (such as ligaments, muscles or tendons). Thus, radiography is not very useful in the presence of lumbago.
As for theMagnetic resonance imaging (MRI), it is more precise, and can be useful in certain cases. On the other hand, it is rarely indicated in the presence of lumbago, mainly because the prognosis is favorable.
Symptoms of lumbago
Symptoms associated with lumbago are:
- pain (often severe) in the lower back area
- possible irradiations towards the middle of the back, and even possibly up to the buttocks.
- feeling of blockage
- muscle spasms
Footnotes to the story : If the pain radiates further down the leg, it may be another condition (such as a herniated disc, a sciatica or an cruralgia).
Causes of lumbago: Why did my back “lock up”?
There are many causes of lumbago. Most of the time, they are related to a physical component, but the psychological factors (such as stress) in low back pain should not be underestimated. Here are some examples of causes that may explain your acute low back pain:
This is the cause most associated with lumbago. The traumatic event can come from a road accident, the practice of a sports activity, or a wrong move in general. Some of my patients even tell me that they got stuck getting out of bed one morning!
The other cases that I often see in the office are related to the carrying a load heavy involving bending and twisting of the trunk.
Sometimes, you can get your back stuck without having made a wrong move beforehand. If you have a physical job, it could be that the repetitive movements have overloaded your back in the last few months, and the lumbago is simply the icing on the cake (it must be said that it is not the best of cakes !).
Moreover, even if you have a sedentary job, the prolonged sitting position may have weakened certain structures over the long term, and contributed to your lumbago.
Muscle and joint imbalances
As mentioned earlier, it is possible that your locked back is the result of non-traumatic factors. Moreover, certain imbalances within your own body may potentially have led to lumbago.
Possible scenario: you have a stiffer hip than the other, or some weaker muscles on one side. Inevitably, this imbalance can cause an overload at the lumbar level. Over time, this makes the back more prone to developing back problems.
Another factor potentially related to lumbago is thelumbar instability. If you have a sedentary lifestyle, your core stabilizer muscles may not be working optimally to protect your spine. Over time, the lumbar region experiences more stress because there are no muscles that can guarantee adequate stabilization.
The result ? A blocked back!
So far we have discussed physical factors that may explain where your low back is coming from. On the other hand, we must not forget (and above all, not underestimate!) the involvement of psychological factors in low back pain.
For example, it is not uncommon to see patients consult for a blocked back following a episode of intense stress, or a low period in his life. Why?
The answer is complex, but remember that any psychic distress can increase muscle tension and hypersensitize the central nervous system. The back thus becomes more fragile, and this sometimes results in lumbago.
Prognosis: Duration of a lumbago
Well, you have your back blocked, and you want to know what to expect in the next few days. You are afraid that it will affect your work, and of course your family and social activities.
Rest assured !
In general, the evolution of lumbago is favorable, and the vast majority of patients recover within 6 weeks. Moreover, even if you have very bad back pain initially, do not think that the high intensity of the pain is synonymous with a more serious attack.
Other elements that influence the duration of lumbago are the location of symptoms, the number of recurrences, your quality of sleep and your state of mind. The following infographic explains each of the points in detail:
Time off work after lumbago
It is common to receive a work stoppage after an episode of lumbago. Depending on the physical demands of your job, a doctor might prescribe between 1 to 4 weeks off initially. Other doctors prefer to opt for stops of 3 to 5 days which will be reassessed regularly.
It should be noted that a prolonged work stoppage is not always the best solution. Indeed, it has been observed that those who are absent from work for a (too) long period have more difficulty in resuming their function, and are more likely to develop chronic pain.¹
The ideal would therefore be to return to work as quickly as possible, making job adaptations as needed. A gradual return can also be considered with his doctor (or a qualified occupational therapist). Moreover, several employers rely on the prevention of low back pain, in particular to avoid episodes of low back pain in a professional setting.
Quick treatment of lumbago: what to do?
Hopefully, you now have a better idea of what a lumbago is, and have identified some potential causes responsible for your locked back.
Now it's time to adopt strategies so that your symptoms decrease, and you can resume your activities as before! First of all, it should be mentioned that the best option would be to consult a health professional.
Back pain is complex, and you will greatly benefit from advice more suited to your condition and your medical history. In the meantime, here are some recommendations to incorporate to make your life easier:
Initially, avoid painful movements
In the first hours after blocking the back, painful movements should be avoided so as not to aggravate the inflammatory process. You will read everywhere on the Internet that it takes avoid complete rest in bed after an acute episode. This is absolutely true, but neither should you do the opposite and overload your back with extreme movements.
For example, if your pain increases when you bend forward, use your legs to pick up an object from the floor instead. If possible, keep walking and go about your business as long as the pain does not worsen after a short rest.
Use lumbar belts sparingly
Many people are tempted to put a lumbar belt after locking his back. Certainly, they have several benefits, such as the feeling of support and the relief of symptoms.
On the other hand, be aware that these supports also come with their share of disadvantages. For example, they reduce the activity of the stabilizing muscles of the trunk, impair abdominal breathing, and limit range of motion.
In short, these belts should be used intelligently. To know my physio opinion on these anti back pain accessories, consult the following article:
Lumbar belt: Opinion of a health professional
For example, wear the lumbar belt when the pain is more severe (for example if you cannot get up), and use it for only a few hours. Or, wear it when you are forced to do an activity at risk of increasing pain (for example, lifting a baby or cooking).
Lumbago: Hot or cold?
To relieve symptoms, it may be appropriate to use the ice or heat. How to choose between hot or cold? In reality, there are no right answers, and each person may react differently and have certain preferences.
Generally speaking, it is recommended to use ice for the first 24-48 hours due to its anti-inflammatory abilities. It can even be applied regularly to control the acute phase (15 minutes with a compress, repeated every 2 hours).
After a few days, heat can be applied to reduce muscle tension by using a heating bag or a towel soaked in hot water.
Note: Whether for ice or heat, there are risks of burning the skin. For this reason, be sure not to apply the ice directly to the skin (use an intermediary such as a wet towel). Also, the application of these modalities should not exceed 15-20 minutes at a time.
Medicines, a must?
For many, the first reflex when you have lumbago is to take medication. For others who are “anti pills”, everything must be done to avoid using chemicals. How do you know if medication is recommended when you have a back freeze?
As everyone reacts differently to medication, it is best to consult your doctor to determine if it is appropriate to take it. Generally, they are used to help patients when symptoms become intolerable, and limit daily life or sleep.
Overall, pain is considered tolerable when it is at a threshold below 4/10 on a pain scale. When it exceeds 7/10, this option must be seriously considered (especially “natural” strategies such as ice or heat do not work).
The drugs generally prescribed following acute low back pain are anti-inflammatories, painkillers, and muscle relaxants. Your doctor will know how to adapt the doses according to your personal situation.
Lumbago and homeopathy
Many people prefer to avoid medication following a lumbago. They therefore turn to homeopathy, and use natural products to try to ease the pain.
Are homeopathic products effective in reducing back pain? From a scientific point of view, there are very few studies establishing a relationship between natural products and favorable effects on low back pain. This is the reason why many doctors are reluctant to offer them to their patients.
On the other hand, many people feel relieved after using natural products. Among the most used products are arnica, capsaicin ointments, turmeric, glucosamine, etc.
What you need to remember is that it is best to tell your doctor if you ever try these products. Although they are natural, they can interact with medications you are already taking, and cause side effects.
Find a position to sleep with lumbago
It is easy to conceive that if the back makes us suffer, it will inevitably affect our quality of sleep. This is why it is important to find a comfortable sleeping position which decreases the stress on the lumbar vertebrae. I often recommend that my clients adopt one of the following two positions to optimize their night's sleep:
- Lying on your back with a pillow under your knees: This position reduces the anteversion of the pelvis (lumbar hyperlordosis), which reduces stress on the facet joints. Basically, keeping your knees slightly bent will prevent your back from arching excessively, thereby reducing stress on your vertebrae.
- Lying on your side with a pillow between the legs: Keeping a pillow between your legs helps reduce lumbar torsion (often painful when you feel like your back is stuck!).
Morning Unlock Program: Video Course
A way to breathe to have less pain
Lumbago can cause pain so intense it's breathtaking…literally! Many of my patients experience lower back pain after taking a deep breath, or when coughing or sneezing.
Therefore, it may be beneficial to practice a certain type of breathing aimed at relieving symptoms and promoting healing. it's about the slow breathing.
Note: It is CRUCIAL to see your doctor if you have any type of respiratory, lung or heart dysfunction. If you have the green light or do not suffer from breathing problems, slow breathing can help you a lot.
The concept is very simple: all you have to do is decrease the frequency of your breathing for a certain period of time. You can continue to breathe the same way (through your nose or mouth, depending on your comfort). On the other hand, it will be necessary to inhale and exhale more deeply than usual. Ideally, aim for 6 breaths in 1 minute, but it's important to take it gradually and stop if you feel any discomfort.
Repeat this exercise several times throughout the day, ideally in an environment conducive to relaxation. By practicing slow breathing, you will have a positive effect on your blood circulation as well as on the oxygenation of your tissues.
Your therapist to the rescue
What will your health professional when you consult after blocking your back? In general, it will start with an initial assessment. This will allow him to identify the dysfunctions on which he can work later. He can also make sure that there is no severe or serious damage (and reassure you by the same token!).
Once this information is in hand, he can apply specific techniques aimed at relieving your symptoms and reducing your pain.
Now, who is the best therapist to see based on your symptoms? Between the physiotherapist, osteo, chiropractor, and massage therapist, it can be difficult to choose. Know that there is not really a good answer, and that you must above all choose a therapist in whom we trust (be careful with quacks!) and who is comfortable with the treatment of acute low back pain.
As this is a very common condition, the vast majority of therapists will be able to help you heal, and/or refer you to the appropriate resources if needed.
To know the role of all stakeholders related to back pain, this article will detail the specificities of each back specialist.
3 exercises to do after lumbago
It has been shown that prolonged rest is not the solution to adopt after a lumbago. Indeed, resting excessively could lead to joint stiffness and muscle atrophy in the long term.
With this in mind, progressive and adapted exercises could help you relieve your symptoms, in addition to preventing recurrences of lumbago.
For example, I myself regularly prescribe these 3 exercises (in video) when my patients consult after freezing their backs.
Here, I dare to hope that you are more educated on lumbagos by reading this article. Above all, I hope you feel more calm and confident after having stuck your back, despite the significant pain.
Lumbago generally heals well and without complications. And even more if you apply the tips shared in this article.
On the other hand, the risk of recurrence is still high (about 75% according to studies). For this reason, you must remain proactive, and make sure to properly treat the cause of your lumbago to avoid relapses. A health professional will be able to accompany you if you have ever suffered from lumbago.
Good recovery !
Get out of the hell of back pain attacks in 3 steps (Video course)
Sorry you couldn't find an answer to your questions!
Help us improve this article!
How can we improve the article?
Patients with back pain, I only see that on a daily basis. The problem is that most people consult only when their pain becomes intolerable. My name is Anas and I am physiotherapist (physio). My mission ? Helping people who are in pain before their pain becomes chronic and requires surgery. It is for this reason that I created Lombafit, a site focused on the popularization of back pain by health professionals.