Lumbago – sudden-onset lower back pain

In Switzerland, about 80% of people suffer from back pain one or more times a year. Lumbago is especially painful and affects the lower back. Read more about triggers, causes and treatment options and how to prevent getting lumbago.


Carmen Schmidli

People suffering from lumbago walk around bent over like a witch. During the Middle Ages, people thought that supernatural beings were responsible for the pain. Two possible explanations as to why acute lower back pain is now called lumbago (Hexenschuss in German which literally means witch's shot).

What is lumbago?

Lumbago causes severe pain which occurs suddenly in the small of the back. It is often triggered by a sudden movement or strain. Also known as pain in the lumbar region.

You feel strong pain in the small of the back. It is no longer possible to move. You instinctively adopt a relieving posture in order to avoid further pain. The pain becomes even more severe if you cough, sneeze or laugh. Typical symptoms of lumbago. What causes acute lumbago: uncontrolled turning, bending over or standing up. Often lifting a heavy load is all it takes to trigger sudden-onset strong back pain. One wrong move can cause the deep muscles of the spine to cramp up. In order to prevent pain in the lower back, the brain reacts reflexively. The muscles tense up, so that we no longer move. It is one of the body’s protective mechanisms. As a result, the muscles tense up even more, too much strain is put on them and they become hardened. It is a vicious circle because this makes the back pain even worse. The most common causes of lumbago are a blocked vertebra in the lumbar region, muscle tension or strain, and degenerative disc disease. Sudden-onset lumbago can be caused by vertebral flaring and protrusion. The pain results from the bulge which touches the nerve directly or from the resulting inflammation.

What should you do if you experience lumbago?

Hot or cold compresses, pain killers or the so-called psoas position help to alleviate lower back pain. However, the important thing is to remain active in general. Go on short walks. Alternate between lying, standing and sitting.

The psoas position involves the head and back lying in a straight line on the floor. Put your knees and lower legs on a chair, so that a right angle is created. This posture relaxes the sciatic nerve and the muscles in the lumbar vertebrae. Painkillers with the active ingredients ibuprofen, paracetamol or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) also help to alleviate acute back pain. Due to the side effects and the risk of addiction, you need to consult your doctor about taking them. You can alleviate some of the pain by undergoing treatments which relax the muscles, such as a massage or the use of hot or cold compresses. Hot compresses can provide additional relief in case of strong pain. For instance, you can put a hot-water bottle on your back. Treatment with hot compresses expands the blood vessels and relieves tension. Cold compresses work better for some people affected. Use a cold pack and put it on the painful area. The pain should subside significantly after about three days. You should go to the doctor if your condition does not improve. It is important for the cause of the lumbago to be identified and rectified.

Alleviating the pain is the top priority for the treatment. If the pain subsides, those affected start moving about again. That is a good thing because those suffering from lumbago should not spend all day lying in bed. On the contrary: bed rest and a lack of exercise make the pain worse and delay treatment. There is even a risk of suffering another bout of lumbago. Try to stay active and get some exercise. This prevents the muscles from tensing up even further and atrophying.

Strong muscles thanks to Helsana Coach

Strengthen your back and stomach muscles or your torso and plan to take scheduled exercise breaks at work. In the Helsana Coach app, you will find numerous home training programmes. The Coach app will help you to meet your targets and accompany you step by step. Download the Helsana Coach now and exercise more.

Herniated disk or lumbago?

In case of a herniated disk, neurological symptoms often occur: a tingling feeling in the leg or temporary paralysis of the leg muscles. Those affected find it difficult to stand on their toes or heels.

Lumbago can be a symptom of a herniated disc. Intervertebral discs are cartilage discs in between the spinal vertebral bodies. They serve as shock absorbers. When you bend over, this increases the pressure and the intervertebral disc or the disc material bulges. This so-called disc bulge is a precursor to a herniated disc. Symptoms such as pain, sensory disturbances and temporary paralysis occur in the legs.

The intervertebral disc at the height of the cervical spine can also be affected. The pain mainly occurs in the neck and radiates to the arm, hand or the back of the head. This is often combined with a feeling of numbness or tingling.
A doctor can diagnose lumbago or a herniated disc. For example, he or she checks sensation in the lumbar vertebrae and legs, mobility and reflexes.

What herbal remedies help?

In case of minor back pain, relief is provided by capsaicin, the main active agent of the chili pepper. Capsaicin is applied externally and is contained in plasters, for instance. You can use plasters in the spinal area to help alleviate the symptoms of muscle pain and tension. But beware: capsaicin can trigger allergic reactions. Other medicinal herbs like Devil's Claw, frankincense, arnica or rosemary can provide additional pain relief. Devil's Claw has an anti-inflammatory effect and relieves pain. So does frankincense. Arnica also helps to reduce swelling. Rosemary promotes blood circulation and alleviates pain. Especially suitable for a hot bath.

How can I prevent lumbago?

Regular and sufficient exercise is the be-all and end-all. Try to build up your back muscles. Sports like swimming, cycling or Nordic Walking are suitable for strengthening your back.

Stretch and strengthen your muscles with regular sporting activities that do not put strain on your back. Shed your excess weight. The heavier a person is, the more pressure is put on the spine. Do you sit frequently? Pay attention to your posture. By adopting an incorrect posture in the workplace, we damage our muscles, ligaments, joints and intervertebral discs.

Exercise breaks with short workouts are just as important. Lifting loads correctly is also crucial. If you strain your body in a one-sided way, tension, neck pain or back pain are likely to occur. Stay active and relax in your daily life. 

If you have ever suffered from lumbago, you should go to see a physiotherapist. He or she can show you what exercises to do in order to strengthen your back muscles. In physiotherapy, you also learn how to do the exercises correctly.

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