Got my back?
November 14, 2015 5:31 PM   Subscribe

I'm experiencing a persistent dull ache on the left side of my lower back. How do I make it get better and prevent it from spreading?

The pain isn't stabbing or sharp; it's a dull ache. When I massage my left lower back, there are 2-3 spots that seem very sore.

Because of the ache, I have problems sitting for more than half an hour or an hour, and I can't sleep on my left side. This is a problem because I often have two-hour classes, and I need to take long train/plane rides to places.

I do math and computer stuff, so I'm usually sitting at a desk or at a computer. I used to have moderate RSI, and it's gotten much better since I've started doing wrist exercises and lifting weights a few months ago.

I really don't want this to get worse, e.g. if it starts on the right side on my back, then I won't be able to sleep at all.

Things I've done so far:
  • Switched to a standing desk (helped, since I can't really sit)
  • Started sleeping with a pillow under my back (sort of helped, still have to sleep on my right side)
  • Minor back stretching and massaging (can't tell if it helps)
Things I might do:
  • Go to the health center at my school and get a referral to physical therapy
  • Buy a memory foam mattress (the cheapest is $60)
  • Do more intensive stretches or yoga
Which of these things is most likely to help? Can you recommend back stretches/exercises with minimal equipment that worked for you?
posted by glass origami robot to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The pillow is under your back when you sleep on your side? Huh?? I cant even picture this. Generally you want to place a pillow between your knees when side-sleeping.

It would be easier to figure this out in person rather than through a written description. Could you see a good therapeutic or medically-oriented massage therapist? Or perhaps a PT?

When did the back pain start? Could it be linked to lifting weights? What activities, postures or positions make it worse or better?

Have you tried moist heat (only if the area is not inflamed or swollen)? Ice? Alternating both?
posted by mysterious_stranger at 5:38 PM on November 14, 2015

Best answer: Out of left field answer but dull ache on lower back equaled kidney infection for me.
posted by Hermione Granger at 5:43 PM on November 14, 2015 [13 favorites]

I'd start with a GP if I were you--what I thought was back pain was kidney stones. (Even the doctor thought it was muscular at first, but the x-ray showed otherwise.)
posted by wintersweet at 5:46 PM on November 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: When did the back pain start?

I remember having minor aches there as early as three or four months ago. It's been getting worse only in the last two weeks.
posted by glass origami robot at 6:25 PM on November 14, 2015

If it's back pain (and not kidneys) the only thing that will help is rest and lots of it. Stop lifting weights and any other strenuous activity. I would advise not to do any stretching. A firm mattress will offer more relief than memory foam. Sleep on your side with a pillow between your knees. Go see a doctor asap.
posted by photoslob at 7:08 PM on November 14, 2015

Best answer: don't assume this is musculoskeletal. Go to your doctor and have an abdominal ultrasound done, including kidneys.

If the ultrasound is clean and you conclude it is musculoskeletal, get yourself to a physical therapist (ideally have your GP refer you to one; they vary in quality. A good one is a fantastic professional to know.) I have only ever seen any improvement in this area with targeted stretches prescribed by a PT, usually involving a foam roller and other things they show you how to use.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:09 PM on November 14, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Solely based on my own n=1 experience: my left-side lower back pain comes from being too sedentary; doing a mix of aerobic and weights along with specific exercises a trainer has shown me how to do to strengthen and stretch out that area at least 2-3 times per week keep the pain at bay.

I think going to physical therapy is a great idea, as is more intensive stretching/yoga.
posted by vegartanipla at 7:13 PM on November 14, 2015

Another n+1: my lower back pain also gets worse if I let exercise lapse for more than a couple of days. I have a desk job and spend a lot of time on the computer after hours. A physiotherapist was helpful and showed me a few stretches to do everyday. I try to keep walking and throw some pilates and yoga into the mix.

Back pain can be different things. Get someone to check it out and then hatch a plan from there.
posted by Trivia Newton John at 7:41 PM on November 14, 2015

Get your Vitamin D level checked. That has contributed to my back pain. Doing Yoga helps. Stretching, etc.

Do a pirformis stretch. Such as: this.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 8:55 PM on November 14, 2015

Best answer: This could be organ-related, and the fact that it a getting worse over time is worrisome to me (not a doctor). Get it checked out.
posted by delight at 9:28 PM on November 14, 2015

Best answer: Go to the doctor for back pain if any of these apply: age over 50, fever, weight loss, personal history of cancer, night pain. These are what we call the "red flags" in low back pain. Sounds like you have night pain.

The most common cause other than muscle spasm is a kidney stone, which can usually be ruled out with a $20 urine analysis. X-rays are less useful the older you are, because most people over 50, and everyone over 60, has an abnormal X-ray.

Try a heating pad.
Try the child's pose from yoga.
posted by neuron at 9:30 PM on November 14, 2015

My doctor and I determined that I had a magnesium deficiency and after I'd been taking a magnesium supplement for a little while all sorts of severe muscular tics and pains went away. Not any back pain specifically in my case, though.
posted by XMLicious at 3:33 AM on November 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Not a doctor obviously and sample of one. About a month ago I developed very persistent lower back pain on the left side. This was very noticeably posture related and worst at the end of the day. In particular it was very bad after sitting all day in meeting rooms in front of my laptop - read very unergonomical set up, or after spending a lot of time carrying bags/luggage. It was always aided somewhat by sleeping in a bed (as opposed to sofa/plane seat).

Things that have helped were fairly high dose of painkillers (I was on a business trip), paying a lot more attention to workstation set up, standing more, losing the laptop shoulder bag and resurrecting the rucksack, massages to reduce overall tension, not so much lower back targeted. I actually tell them to leave the lower back alone with anything more intense than light strokes as these are spa massages, not therapeutic medical massages.

It was particularly painful whenever I was forced to sit in a very unsupported way for many hrs. So do whatever you can/have to to avoid such things as well. I also noted that I am massively unbalanced in how I sit, stand, turn etc so paying more attention to that has helped so one side doesn't have to bear a lot more strain than the other.

Between work and personal commitments I wasn't able to go to my GP immediately and employing these strategies I've been able to reduce symptoms where I now have occasional twinges that remind me to pay attention, not cause me to grimace in pain. But this is on the list of things I'll bring up the next time I see my GP. As the current level of discomfort is quite tolerable I'd prefer to visit my GP in January when my level of deductible goes way down.
posted by koahiatamadl at 5:31 AM on November 15, 2015

If you keep your wallet in your back pocket, stop doing so. It often causes issues.
posted by erynnsilver at 4:51 PM on November 15, 2015

If I had pain severe enough to interfere with lying in bed or sleeping (and it didn't have an obvious physical cause like a bruise or a pulled muscle that happened at a specific time), I would definitely go to the doctor. If going to the student health center isn't prohibitive in terms of cost, I'd start there.
posted by insectosaurus at 3:28 PM on November 16, 2015

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