The Lowdown on Lumbago

Lumbago and low back pain are one in the same, and affect millions in the U.S.

Though it might sound like an exotic dance move, the word lumbago is just a medical term that means low back pain. If you’ve been around long enough, you’ve probably heard that low back pain is one of the most common reasons people see a doctor, miss work, or are otherwise temporarily disabled from living an otherwise healthy and active life. More than 3 million people in the United States experience lumbago each year.

For some, lumbago can be a nuisance that requires minimal attention and doesn’t stop a person from living life. However, a particularly acute or severe low back pain episode can leave other people blindsided by the resulting pain and disability. When the spine isn’t working correctly, neither is the body. For people experiencing lumbago for more than three months, the pain is considered chronic and should be evaluated by a spine health specialist. Unfortunately, about 20 percent of clinically diagnosed low back pain cases will become chronic.

Even when the underlying cause of lumbago is successfully treated, the low back pain can sometimes persist. Especially for people who experience frequent low back pain episodes, it’s crucial to know that you don’t have to take it lying down. Solid prevention strategies coupled with the best lifestyle choices, plus care and treatment from a dedicated spine specialist, can all help immensely.

From a medical perspective, the spinal column is divided into three sections – the cervical spine with 7 vertebrae at the top, the thoracic spine in the upper-middle back consisting of 12 vertebrae, and the lumbar spine in the lower back with 5 vertebrae. The lower back is the most common section of the spine to experience pain and it can have a multitude of underlying causes. The most typical causes of lumbago include poor posture, inactivity, a sedentary lifestyle, arthritis, spinal fracture, a ruptured disc, or another underlying condition. Another risk factor involved in the development of lumbago is age, with the first low back pain “attack” occurring somewhere between the ages of 30 and 50, and the risk increases as a person ages. One additional risk factor for lumbago that is worth mentioning is mental health. Though it may not seem related, people experiencing chronic stress, anxiety, or depression tend to have more back pain episodes.

The good news is that most instances of lumbago will resolve without significant intervention within a few weeks of the pain’s onset. Most often, over-the-counter pain relievers or NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory) medications and gentle exercises like walking or stretching can do the trick. For people who tend to experience more frequent bouts of low-back pain, seeking out a physical therapist who specializes in the spine can be highly beneficial. These dedicated medical specialists can significantly help people work effectively through pain episodes to reduce the duration of the pain and provide strengthening and posture-related therapy that can help prevent lumbago in the future.

Getting to the bottom of what is causing lumbago and taking active steps to resolve the underlying cause can help many people find lasting relief. Good low back pain prevention strategies are also a must. The most effectively treated lumbago episode is the one that never happened. Fortunately, some of the simplest lifestyle choices are effective at preventing low back pain and spinal deterioration.

Maintaining healthy body weight is among the most effective things a person can do to minimize their risk of experiencing lumbago. The spine was not designed to carry excess weight, so keeping body weight in check is one way to protect the spine. Additionally, regular exercise, such as walking and swimming, safeguards the spine by helping to nourish its structures, surrounding ligaments, and muscles. Finally, if you are smoker, stop now! The chemicals present in cigarettes and other smoking devices and products damage the spine. Avoiding these toxins helps ensure the spine isn’t unnecessarily impacted by our lifestyle choices.

Though lumbago can be a debilitating nuisance for many Americans, it doesn’t have to be. Armed with the knowledge about ways to prevent it and seeking treatment if the pain has persisted for more than 12 weeks, the vast majority of people will come out on the other side of a lumbago episode with a much deeper appreciation for and desire to protect their spine health.


Neel Anand MD