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Everything you need to know about lumbar issues

26 October 2022

For many people working long hours in offices, and indeed many who are now working from home, there is one medical issue that tends to come up more than others. It begins as a dull ache near the bottom of your spine and if not properly addressed, can develop into a serious issue.

Pain in the lumbar region, often referred to simply as the lower back, has become one of the defining medical ailments of this era. In the UK, as many as one in three will suffer from lower back pain of some kind this year and it’s safe to say that almost everyone will experience the discomfort of some or another in their lumbar region at some point in their life.

But why is this region so susceptible to aches and pains? And what can we do to address the problem?

What is the Lumbar region?

The lumbar region of the body sits at the base of the spine and roughly incorporates the area between the first and fifth vertebrae. This is a part of our body that is superbly designed with various ligaments, muscles, nerves, bones, and joints working together to support our weight and give us flexibility, but it also bears the brunt of most of our activities.

In terms of movement, the lumbar region primarily deals with bending and twisting as well as flexing the hips and rotating them while we walk. Nerves in the low back region are also connected to the feet, legs, and pelvis, which partly explains that when having issues in the lumbar region, people often experience stabbing sensations that seem to lie well outside the lower back area.  

What are the symptoms we need to watch for?

Problems in the lumbar region will usually first manifest themselves as dull aching pain, to begin with - perhaps after a prolonged period of sitting down or being in an unnatural position for too long. This might be accompanied by mild spasms that can increase in intensity over time, limited mobility, and aches in the hips and joints around the pelvis.

On the other hand, lower back problems can also arrive like a runaway train. If this is the case, the symptoms above will most likely be multiplied to the extent that mobility of any kind is severely limited.

The exact mechanics of what’s going on is often far from clear, but it’s usually a muscle or joint strain thanks to any number of reasons which we’ll go into below. If this is the case, the problem should only last a week to a month tops. However, if you are experiencing serious pain for more than a month, it could be a sign that something more serious is going on.

One option could be sciatica, which is when one of the disks between the vertebrae bulges or breaks and pushes on the sciatic nerve, sending sharp stabbing pains from the buttock down one of the legs.

Lastly, and most seriously, a herniated disc is when one of the vertebrae disks moves or breaks and puts pressure on the spinal nerve roots. This can cause severe pain and may well require a prolonged period of rest before it’s better.        

Why do so many people experience problems?

Nobody is entirely sure why so many people suffer from lower back problems but there are some obvious candidates we can point the finger of blame at.

Our increasingly sedentary lives and tendency to spend hours on end in chairs are causing havoc on our bodies and the lumbar region is one area suffering more than most. It’s no surprise that sitting tends to inflame the lumbar region while standing, and even better certain yoga poses, can act as blissful relief.   

But we can’t blame chairs for everything. Many people who suffer from lower back problems do so because of excessive strain, either through their job or by doing sports. If you find yourself doing the same repetitive movements that put a strain on your lower back, chances are you’ll experience pain at some point.

There’s also poor posture to think and even the kind of bag that we carry. As children, we usually thought adults moaning about posture was simply nagging, but there’s certainly something to it and poor posture can have a terrible impact on the body. If you often carry a heavy bag this can also put added strain on your lumbar area.   

What can I do if I have lumbar issues?

There are numerous ways to address lumbar issues depending on their severity and age. For the most serious cases, it may be a question of surgery, but for the overwhelming majority, several treatments are usually enough to address the problem.

First thing is to take it easy. If your lumbar region is inflamed, the body needs some time to recover and it’s extremely unlikely that you’ll be able to push through it. If mobility is an issue this might be a question of time off work but simply cutting down on the activities that are stressing the lumbar region should suffice. If you normally have to sit down all day, try using a standing desk on and off - but not exclusively to begin with as this will most likely inflame the problem.  

Stretching is one of the most effective ways to gradually get back to normal. If it’s a little painful, to begin with, take it slow, and don’t push yourself too far. Heat and ice therapy are both excellent ways to address the problem and alternating between the two is even better.

What about the long term?

Lumbar issues are no joke and after staggering around for two weeks you’ll probably swear blind that you will do whatever it takes to never experience that again. If the problem has arisen from a sport or repeated action at work, it’s certainly worth keeping an eye on the kind of actions you use when you’re fit again.

If your issue is office related - and more specifically chair related - it may be time to accept the rapidly emerging truth that chairs are not particularly good for us. Should you feel motivated to make a major change, standing desks are completely revolutionising how we work and come with a host of potential health and even work benefits, that include putting less strain on the lumbar region.

Give it a try and you may never go back to a traditional chair again.