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Dr. Mitchel Derrick specializes in providing gentle, safe, and effective chiropractic treatment for a wide variety of conditions. With many years of chiropractic training and education under his belt and a high success rate with back and neck pain relief and low back pain relief. Dr. Derrick has treated hundreds of patients with conditions ranging from whiplash to scoliosis, sciaitca to herniated discs to carpal tunnel syndrome back and neck pain, low back pain to leg pain. Dr. Derrick has had stunning success with these conditions and many others.
Dr. Derrick is dedicated to providing the best chiropractic massage therapy care and public education in Thurston County Olympia, Wa, committed to relieving your pain using the true principles of chiropractic care. Patients seeking Chiropractic and massage therapy are assured of receiving only the finest quality care because Dr. Derrick has a genuine concern for your well-being.
Pain in the lower back or low back pain is a common concern, affecting up to 90% of Americans at some point in their lifetime. Up to 50% will have more than one episode. Low back pain is not a specific disease, rather it is a symptom that may occur from a variety of different processes. In up to 85% of people with low back pain, despite a thorough medical examination, no specific cause of the pain can be identified. America spends approximately $50 billion a year on low back pain.
Back pain can have many underlying reasons, but often no specific cause will be found and the pain will stop. This chapter will review many of the causes of back pain and proper evaluation and diagnosis. Please be sure to discuss your individual symptoms as well as the suggested treatments with your health-care professional to determine the appropriate diagnostic and treatment plan for your circumstances.
•Low back pain is second only to the common cold as a cause of lost days at work. It is also one of the most common reasons to visit a doctor's office or a hospital's emergency department. It is the second most common neurologic complain in the United States, second only to headache.
•For 90% of people, even those with nerve root irritation, their symptoms will improve within two months no matter what treatment is used, even if no treatment is given.
•Doctors usually refer to back pain as acute if it has been present for less than a month and chronic if it lasts for a longer period of time
Low Back Pain Causes
Back pain is a symptom. Common causes of back pain involve disease or injury to the muscles, bones, and/or nerves of the spine. Pain arising from abnormalities of organs within the abdomen, pelvis, or chest may also be felt in the back. This is called referred pain. Many disorders within the abdomen, such as appendicitis, aneurysms, kidney diseases, kidney infection, bladder infections, pelvic infections, and ovarian disorders, among others, can cause pain referred to the back. Normal pregnancy can cause back pain in many ways, including stretching ligaments within the pelvis, irritating nerves, and straining the low back. Your doctor will have this in mind when evaluating your pain.
•Nerve root syndromes are those that produce symptoms of nerve impingement (a nerve is directly irritated), often due to a herniation (or bulging) of the disc between the lower back bones. Sciatica is an example of nerve root impingement. Impingement pain tends to be sharp, affecting a specific area, and associated with numbness in the area of the leg that the affected nerve supplies.
Herniated discs develop as the spinal discs degenerate or grow thinner. The jellylike central portion of the disc bulges out of the central cavity and pushes against a nerve root. Intervertebral discs begin to degenerate by the third decade of life. Herniated discs are found in one-third of adults older than 20 years of age. Only 3% of these, however, produce symptoms of nerve impingement.
Picture of a herniated lumbar disc, a common cause of sciatica
Low Back Pain Overview
Spondylosis occurs as intervertebral discs lose moisture and volume with age, which decreases the disc height. Even minor trauma under these circumstances can cause inflammation and nerve root impingement, which can produce classic sciatica without disc rupture.
Spinal disc degeneration coupled with disease in joints of the low back can lead to spinal-canal narrowing (spinal stenosis). These changes in the disc and the joints produce symptoms and can be seen on an X-ray. A person with spinal stenosis may have pain radiating down both lower extremities while standing for a long time or walking even short distances.
Cauda equina syndrome is a medical emergency whereby the spinal cord is directly compressed. Disc material expands into the spinal canal, which compresses the nerves. A person would experience pain, possible loss of sensation, and bowel or bladder dysfunction. This could include inability to control urination causing incontinence or the inability to begin urination.
•Musculoskeletal pain syndromes that produce low back pain include myofascial pain syndromes and fibromyalgia.
Myofascial pain is characterized by pain and tenderness over localized areas (trigger points), loss of range of motion in the involved muscle groups, and pain radiating in a characteristic distribution but restricted to a peripheral nerve. Relief of pain is often reported when the involved muscle group is stretched.
Fibromyalgia results in widespread pain and tenderness throughout the body. Generalized stiffness, fatigue, and muscle aches are reported.
•Infections of the bones (osteomyelitis) of the spine are an uncommon cause of low back pain.
•Noninfectious inflammation of the spine (spondylitis) can cause stiffness and pain in the spine that is particularly worse in the morning. Ankylosing spondylitis typically begins in adolescents and young adults.
•Tumors, possibly cancerous, can be a source of skeletal pain.
•Inflammation of nerves from the spine can occur with infection of the nerves with the herpes zoster virus that causes shingles. This can occur in the thoracic area to cause upper back pain or in the lumbar area to cause low back pain.
•As can be seen from the extensive, but not all inclusive, list of possible causes of low back pain, it is important to have a thorough medical evaluation to guide possible diagnostic tests.
Low Back Pain Symptoms
Pain in the lumbosacral area (lower part of the back) is the primary symptom of low back pain.
•The pain may radiate down the front, side, or back of your leg, or it may be confined to the low back.
•The pain may become worse with activity.
•Occasionally, the pain may be worse at night or with prolonged sitting such as on a long car trip.
•You may have numbness or weakness in the part of the leg that receives its nerve supply from a compressed nerve.
This can cause an inability to plantar flex the foot. This means you would be unable to stand on your toes or bring your foot downward. This occurs when the first sacral nerve is compressed or injured.
Another example would be the inability to raise your big toe upward. This results when the fifth lumbar nerve is compromised.
When to Seek Medical Care
The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality has identified 11 red flags that doctors look for when evaluating a person with back pain. The focus of these red flags is to detect fractures (broken bones), infections, or tumors of the spine. Presence of any of the following red flags associated with low back pain should prompt a visit to your doctor as soon as possible for complete evaluation.
•Recent significant trauma such as a fall from a height, motor vehicle accident, or similar incident
•Recent mild trauma in those older than 50 years of age: A fall down a few steps or slipping and landing on the buttocks may be considered mild trauma.
•History of prolonged steroid use: People with asthma, COPD, and rheumatic disorders, for example, may be given this type of medication.
•Anyone with a history of osteoporosis: An elderly woman with a history of a hip fracture, for example, would be considered high risk.
•Any person older than 70 years of age: There is an increased incidence of cancer, infections, and abdominal causes of the pain.
•Prior history of cancer
•History of a recent infection
•Temperature over 100 F
•IV drug use: Such behavior markedly increases risk of an infectious cause.
•Low back pain worse at rest: This is thought to be associated with an infectious or malignant cause of pain but can also occur with ankylosing spondylitis.
•Unexplained weight loss
The presence of any of the above would justify a visit to a hospital's emergency department, particularly if your family doctor is unable to evaluate you within the next 24 hours.
•The presence of any acute nerve dysfunction should also prompt an immediate visit. These would include the inability to walk or inability to raise or lower your foot at the ankle. Also included would be the inability to raise the big toe upward or walk on your heels or stand on your toes. These might indicate an acute nerve injury or compression. Under certain circumstances, this may be an acute neurosurgical emergency.
•Loss of bowel or bladder control, including difficulty starting or stopping a stream of urine or incontinence, can be a sign of an acute emergency and requires urgent evaluation in an emergency department.
•If you cannot manage the pain using the medicine you are currently prescribed, this may be an indication for a reevaluation or to go to an emergency department if your doctor is not available. Generally, this problem is best addressed with the doctor writing the prescription who is overseeing your care.
Low Back Pain Exams and Tests
•Because many different conditions may cause back pain, a thorough medical history will be performed as part of the examination. Some of the questions you are asked may not seem pertinent to you but are very important to your doctor in determining the source of your pain.
•Your doctor will first ask you many questions regarding the onset of the pain. (Were you lifting a heavy object and felt an immediate pain? Did the pain come on gradually?) He or she will want to know what makes the pain better or worse. The doctor will ask you questions referring to the red flag symptoms. He or she will ask if you have had the pain before. Your doctor will ask about recent illnesses and associated symptoms such as coughs, fevers, urinary difficulties, or stomach illnesses. In females, the doctor will want to know about vaginal bleeding, cramping, or discharge. Pain from the pelvis, in these cases, is frequently felt in the back.
•To ensure a thorough examination, you will be asked to put on a gown. The doctor will watch for signs of nerve damage while you walk on your heels, toes, and soles of the feet. Reflexes are usually tested using a reflex hammer. This is done at the knee and behind the ankle. As you lie flat on your back, one leg at a time is elevated, both with and without the assistance of the doctor. This is done to test the nerves, muscle strength, and assess the presence of tension on the sciatic nerve. Sensation is usually tested using a pin, paper clip, broken tongue depressor, or other sharp object to assess any loss of sensation in your legs.
•Depending on what the doctor suspects is wrong with you, the doctor may perform an abdominal examination, a pelvic examination, or a rectal examination. These exams look for diseases that can cause pain referred to your back. The lowest nerves in your spinal cord serve the sensory area and muscles of the rectum, and damage to these nerves can result in inability to control urination and defecation. Thus, a rectal examination is essential to make sure that you do not have nerve damage in this area of your body.
•Doctors can use several tests to "look inside you" to get an idea of what might be causing the back pain. No single test is perfect in that it identifies the absence or presence of disease 100% of the time.
•If there are no red flags, there is often little to be gained in obtaining X-rays for patients with acute back pain. Because about 90% of people have improved within 30 days of the onset of their back pain, most doctors will not order tests in the routine evaluation of acute, uncomplicated back pain.
•Plain X-rays are generally not considered useful in the evaluation of acute back pain, particularly in the first 30 days. In the absence of red flags, their use is discouraged. Their use is indicated if there is significant trauma, mild trauma in those older than 50 years of age, people with osteoporosis, and those with prolonged steroid use. Do not expect an X-ray to be taken.
•Myelogram is an X-ray study in which a radio-opaque dye is injected directly into the spinal canal. Its use has decreased dramatically since MRI scanning. A myelogram now is usually done in conjunction with a CT scan and, even then, only in special situations when surgery is being planned.
•Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans are a highly detailed test and are very expensive. The test does not use X-rays but very strong magnets to produce images. Their routine use is discouraged in acute back pain unless a condition is present that may require immediate surgery, such as with cauda equina syndrome or when red flags are present and suggest infection of the spinal canal, bone infection, tumor, or fracture.
MRI may also be considered after one month of symptoms to rule out more serious underlying problems.
MRIs are not without problems. Bulging of the discs is noted on up to 40% of MRIs performed on people without back pain. Other studies have shown that MRIs fail to diagnose up to 20% of ruptured discs that are found during surgery.
•A CT scan is an X-ray test that is able to produce a cross-sectional picture of the body. CT scan is used much like MRI.
•Electromyogram or EMG is a test that involves the placement of very small needles into the muscles. Electrical activity is monitored. Its use is usually reserved for more chronic pain and to predict the level of nerve root damage. The test is also able to help the doctor distinguish between nerve root disease and muscle disease.
•Sedimentation rate or C-reactive protein are blood tests that can indicate whether or not inflammation is present in the body.
•Complete blood count (CBC) is used to detect elevations of white blood cells and anemia.
Medical Author:William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACRDr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.
Get A Spinal Checkup
Everyone with a spine needs to have it checked periodically by
a chiropractor. Just as a periodic dental checkup is necessary to
keep your teeth healthy, so a chiropractic spinal checkup is
necessary to ensure a nervous system that is free from vertebral
subluxations permitting you to experience greater healing and
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