Sharp lower back pain: Causes and treatments (2023)

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Up to 80% of adults will experience lower back pain at some point during their lives. Many different muscles, bones, and connective tissues meet in the back. This means that individuals may experience pain in this area for a wide range of reasons.

Slight variations in how a person experiences pain may help a doctor identify the source of back pain.

The following are some possible causes of sharp lower back pain.

Muscle strains

A muscle strain might happen due to a simple action, such as bending down to pick something up or twisting while holding something heavy.

A person may experience a sharp pain that causes a burning or tingling sensation or a radiating ache. They may also have a stiff back, aching muscles, and pain that gets worse if they twist or move the back.

Muscle strains are generally minor injuries, and they often require little or no treatment.

Remedies for muscle strains in the back

Muscle strains generally respond well to rest, which means avoiding physical activity for a few days while the muscle heals. While a muscle strain is healing, avoid sitting upright, as this may engage the injured area.

However, after a few days of rest, getting some physical activity can help strengthen the muscles. A 2017 review suggests that both general exercise and exercises specific to the back can help reduce lower back pain. Gentle activities, such as swimming or cycling, may help strengthen the muscles and keep the body healthy.

Also, working with a physical therapist to create a gentle workout routine can help strengthen the affected muscle in the back.

Applying hot or cold packs may help treat symptoms such as swelling and pain. Alternate between 15–20 minutes of cold and 20 minutes of rest a few times each day for the first few days. Afterward, using a heat pack may help relax the tense muscles and promote circulation.

Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers, such as ibuprofen (Advil) and acetaminophen (Tylenol), may also help control the symptoms. Always follow the dosage recommendations, and do not use these medications to work through the pain.

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Learn more about the differences between ibuprofen and acetaminophen here.


The sciatic nerve is a long nerve that runs from the back to the legs. Sciatica, which refers to pain in this nerve, occurs due to pressure on the sciatic nerve. This pressure can be due to an injury, such as a herniated disk, or a longer-term issue, such as incorrect posture.

Sciatica is relatively common in adults, with 10–40% of people experiencing it at some point during their lives. It is important not to generalize back pain or assume that any lower back pain is sciatica. Anyone who suspects that they have sciatica should contact a doctor.

Pain from sciatica may build up over time or come on all at once. It can also vary between a dull ache and an excruciating tearing or burning feeling. Many people describe the pain as warm or sharp, and it typically radiates from one side of the lower back down to the hip or buttocks.

Remedies for sciatica

Sciatica can often improve without medical treatment within 4–6 weeks. Resting, getting gentle exercise, and improving one’s posture can all help gradually strengthen the back and prevent extra pressure on the nerve.

If a person’s sciatica symptoms do not improve with home remedies and rest, they may wish to seek medical help.

A doctor can recommend prescription pain relievers and physical therapy to help treat the condition. In some cases, they may refer a person for surgery to remedy sciatica pain.

Surgical procedures can include lumbar decompression surgery and microdiscectomy.

In lumbar decompression surgery, a surgeon either removes part of a vertebra to ease pressure on a nerve or fuses vertebrae to improve spine stability. Vertebrae are the individual bones that together form the spinal column.

Learn more about the anatomy of the back here.

Doctors may recommend microdiscectomy if a person’s sciatica results from a lumbar disk slipping out of place. A surgeon removes any tissue or bone over the sciatic nerve root to relieve pressure in this procedure.

Intervertebral disk disease

Intervertebral disk disease occurs when one or more of the rubbery disks between the vertebrae deteriorate or break down.

These disks help cushion the vertebrae and help with mobility. The breakdown of these cushion areas can lead to localized pain. As the structure of the spine changes, disks and vertebrae may put pressure on various nerves, leading to pain in other areas of the body.

For example, if disk deterioration occurs in the lower back and affects nerves in this area, a person may experience sharp pains in their buttocks and legs.

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Despite its name, the condition is not a disease. It is a natural occurrence that can happen with age.

Remedies for intervertebral disk disease

Some OTC anti-inflammatory medications may help relieve pressure on the disks and provide short-term pain relief.

Should the condition cause severe pain or affect a person’s quality of life, a doctor may recommend physical therapy and surgical intervention.

Some surgical procedures for this complaint include:

  • Facet joint injections: In this procedure, a surgeon injects a local anesthetic and steroid solutions around the affected disks. This can provide stronger pain relief than OTC products.
  • Facet rhizotomy: This procedure uses a probe that emits specific radio frequencies to deaden nerve endings in the affected area.
  • Intradiscal electrothermal annuloplasty (IDET): During IDET, a surgeon inserts a catheter into the affected disk and then heats it up with an electric current. This can help reduce pain.

Herniated disk

A slipped, or herniated, disk occurs when one of the spinal disks ruptures. This can put pressure on the nerves, which causes intense, sharp pain.

A person might also experience symptoms such as:

  • a tingling pain or numbness in the lower back, buttocks, and legs
  • muscle spasms
  • weakness in the lower back and legs

Remedies for herniated disks

Most cases respond well to mild treatment, such as rest and physical therapy. In more severe cases, a doctor may recommend pain relievers or steroid injections to reduce the symptoms.

In some instances, herniated disk surgery may be necessary. These procedures often involve removing part, or all, of an affected disk to reduce pressure on surrounding nerves. A surgeon may also insert an artificial disk into the spine or fuse two or more vertebrae.

Learn about some safe exercises for treating a herniated disk here.

Serious injuries from accidents

Forceful injuries from impact sports, vehicle accidents, and falls can all cause sudden back pain. Anyone who experiences back pain after such an event should contact a doctor, as this pain may signify something more serious, such as a fractured bone in the back.

Besides pain, some other symptoms of a serious back injury can include:

  • loss of bladder control
  • numbness in the groin or pelvis
  • weakness in the legs
  • pain when coughing or urinating
  • loss of bowel control

Anyone who experiences these symptoms should contact a doctor.

Remedies for injuries from accidents

The best remedy for a back injury will depend on what damage it caused. With muscle strains, for example, rest and physical therapy may suffice.

Should a person experience a fracture in part of their spine, surgery may be necessary to help treat the damage.

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Other chronic issues

Pain in the lower back may result from an injury, but it may also be a symptom of a chronic issue, such as:

  • incorrect posture
  • scoliosis
  • spinal stenosis
  • ankylosing spondylitis
  • kidney infection
  • kidney stones
  • arthritis
  • fibromyalgia
  • infection of the spine
  • spinal cancer

In females, lower back pain might signal a range of conditions, including ovarian cysts, uterine fibroids, and ovarian cancer.

When other conditions cause lower back pain, treatment focuses on treating the underlying cause.

Back pain is widespread, and most people will experience some form of back pain from a muscle strain at least once in their lives.

However, back pain can also occur due to a variety of everyday activities or situations, such as:

  • lifting a heavy box
  • moving furniture
  • lifting heavy weights at the gym
  • overstretching
  • twisting while practicing sports, such as tennis or golf
  • engaging in physical contact sports
  • twisting the back incorrectly while carrying weight
  • carrying extra weight from pregnancy
  • engaging in physical labor, such as agricultural or construction work
  • sitting or standing for long periods
  • wearing a purse, bag, or backpack over one shoulder


Depending on the severity and extent of these injuries, remedies may range from rest and OTC pain relievers to surgical procedures.

Physical therapy, posture correction, and rest can often help treat minor muscular injuries without surgery.

Learn more about treating lower back pain without surgery here.

In cases of severe muscle or bone damage, corrective surgery may be necessary.

When to contact a doctor

(Video) Back Pain Management: Treatment of Chronic Back Pain | UCLA Health

Sometimes, people know the cause of their sharp lower back pain. For example, the pain may happen after they bend to pick something up or after an intense workout at the gym. In these cases, rest and home care may be enough to help the body heal.

However, there are some occasions when a person should contact a doctor, including:

  • when the pain does not respond well to home treatments
  • when pain that has no known cause lasts for longer than a couple of days
  • when they experience tingling or weakness in the legs

People should take note of any symptoms as they appear to share with the doctor. The doctor will likely ask the person to describe their symptoms and how long they have persisted. They may also ask the person to do a series of movements to try to find the exact point of pain in the back and determine the underlying cause.

In some cases, the doctor may also order imaging tests, such as X-rays or MRI scans, to help with the diagnosis.

Read about 10 exercises for strengthening the lower back here.

Lower back pain is common. It often results from incorrectly lifting something or putting too much strain on the muscles in the back. Some chronic conditions may also lead to back pain.

Back pain from more minor injuries and strains generally responds well to home treatments, such as OTC pain relievers, ice, and rest.

Strengthening the muscles with physical therapy may help prevent strain injuries in the future. If the pain does not begin to get better within a few days, however, it may be time to contact a doctor for a full diagnosis.

In each case, working directly with a doctor or physical therapist can help identify and treat the underlying cause of sharp back pain in most people.


How do I get rid of stabbing pain in my lower back? ›

In the meantime, you can try over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications to help manage your pain. Using an ice pack or heating pad on your lower back a few times a day may also help. Muscle strain is the most common cause of lower back pain, but several other conditions can also cause it.

What causes sudden sharp pain in lower back? ›

A sudden and severe shooting pain in the back is a common symptom of a slipped (or herniated) disc. A slipped disc occurs when the softer interior of a disc leaks out due to a rupture in the exterior of the disc, and this leakage can irritate the nerves and cause pain, numbness, or weakness.

Is sharp lower back pain serious? ›

1. Sharp pain rather than a dull ache: This could indicate a torn muscle or ligament, or a problem with an internal organ in the back or side. 2. Radiating pain: This pain "moves" or shoots to the glutes or legs, which could indicate a nerve compression condition.

Does sharp back pain go away? ›

Acute, or short-term back pain lasts a few days to a few weeks. Most low back pain is acute. It tends to resolve on its own within a few days with self-care and there is no residual loss of function. In some cases a few months are required for the symptoms to disappear.

How long does it take for sharp back pain to go away? ›

Acute (short-term) back pain lasts a few days to a few weeks. It usually resolves on its own within a few days with self-care and there is no long-term loss of function. Chronic back pain is pain that continues for 12 weeks or longer, even after an initial injury or underlying cause of back pain has been treated.

What are red flags for low back pain? ›

“Red flags” include pain that lasts more than 6 weeks; pain in persons younger than 18 years or older than 50 years; pain that radiates below the knee; a history of major trauma; constitutional symptoms; atypical pain (eg, that which occurs at night or that is unrelenting); the presence of a severe or rapidly ...

Should I see a doctor for sharp lower back pain? ›

If your back pain is from a recent strain or mild injury, your primary care doctor can probably help. But if the pain is severe, ongoing, or accompanied by other symptoms such as numbness or tingling in your arms or legs, it may be time to see a back doctor.

How do you tell if lower back pain is muscle or disc? ›

Your spinal disc is at the bottom of your back, so if you have pain in your lower back, you may assume it is a slipped disc. Furthermore, the feeling of pain will differ between the two. Muscle pain will feel like post-workout soreness, while disc pain will feel debilitating and tingly.

What organ causes sharp back pain? ›

Kidneys help remove liquid waste from the body. When urine contains a lot of chemical substances – more than what the urine can dilute – kidney stones can form, and they can cause a sharp pain in the side and the lower back region.

When should I go to the ER for lower back pain? ›

If your back pain is unrelenting and not relieved by rest, you should immediately visit the closest emergency department. If the pain is accompanied by any of the following symptoms, you should also seek emergency care: Fever. Numbness.

Should I ignore lower back pain? ›

Sometimes, it can persist, become worse, or perhaps even indicate a serious underlying spinal problem. Because of this, it's best not to ignore your back pain. A spine doctor can let you know why you're experiencing symptoms and point you in the direction of a full recovery.

How can you tell if back pain is muscular or something else? ›

A pulled muscle would not feel hot, tingling, or electric like an irritated nerve root would. The pain would only subside while you are relaxed and resting, as the tension and spasms are alleviated. However, the pain would most likely flare up when you get up to move again.

Is a heating pad good for back pain? ›

Heat therapy is an effective remedy for back pain because it boosts circulation, which then allows nutrients and oxygen to travel to joints and muscles. This circulation helps repair damaged muscles, relieves inflammation, and improves back stiffness. Any type of heat therapy can help relieve back pain.

What does a slipped disc in back feel like? ›

Pain is often described as sharp or burning. Numbness or tingling. People who have a herniated disk often have radiating numbness or tingling in the body part served by the affected nerves.

Which of the following symptoms suggests a more serious cause of back pain? ›

If your back pain is accompanied by any of the following symptoms, head to your closest emergency room because you could be dealing with a more serious condition or injury: Sudden spike in pain, discomfort, weakness or numbness. Loss of bladder function. High fever.

What is the most common type of low back pain? ›

“By far the most common cause of back pain is non-specific muscular pain, which is basically a muscle strain.” Dr. Ashburn explains. One common symptom to look out for is non-specific, intense muscular pain on one or both sides of the lower back.

How can I tell if my back pain is kidney related? ›

Kidney pain is felt in your sides, back, belly or groin. It's often mistaken for back pain.
Some of the most common kidney pain symptoms include:
  1. A constant, dull ache in your back.
  2. Pain in your sides, under your rib cage or in your abdomen.
  3. Severe or sharp pain that comes in waves.
  4. Pain that spreads to your groin area.
May 31, 2022

Is it better to sit or lay down with lower back pain? ›

If you're experiencing back pain when sitting, your impulse may be to lie down and then try to slowly progress back to sitting, says Dr. Atlas. But this is the wrong approach. You should lie down to relieve the pain, but the goal should be not to return to sitting, but rather to regain your ability to stand and move.

What is a pinched nerve in the lower back? ›

A pinched nerve in your lower back happens because of pressure on the nerves near the vertebrae in the spine. You may notice a range of symptoms, including sharp pain and numbness. A pinched nerve in your lower back occurs when there's excessive pressure on the nerves near the last five vertebrae in your back.

Should I rest in bed if I have lower back pain? ›

Staying in bed won't help you get better faster.

Research suggests that if you can find comfortable positions and keep moving, you may not need bed rest at all. Research shows that: Lying down longer than a day or two day isn't helpful for relieving back pain. People can recover more quickly without any bed rest.

What are the two main types of lower back pain? ›

Types of Low Back Pain
  • Mechanical pain. By far the most common cause of lower back pain, mechanical pain (axial pain) is pain primarily from the muscles, ligaments, joints (facet joints, sacroiliac joints), or bones in and around the spine. ...
  • Radicular pain.

Is heat or ice better for back pain? ›

Generally speaking, ice is better than heat for back pain that may be caused by an acute injury. The Cleveland Clinic says that, in the battle of back pain, “Ice wins to shut down swelling, inflammation and pain early on where heat may actually make an injury worse.”

Can sharp pain in back be heart related? ›

According to the American Heart Association, back pain is one symptom of a heart attack in progress. Back pain can also indicate stable or unstable angina. If the pain comes on suddenly, go to the emergency room.

Will the ER do anything for back pain? ›

Emergency departments help to stabilize low back pain, but they do not offer long-term treatment. While you may experience pain relief after visiting the ER, the underlying condition rarely resolves on its own and requires further medical treatment.

Why wont my lower back pain go away? ›

Common Causes of Chronic Back Pain

Arthritis of the spine —the gradual thinning of the cartilage inside the spine. Spinal stenosis —narrowing of the spinal canal that may lead to nerve pain. Disc problems, such as a herniated or bulging disc. Myofascial pain syndrome—unexplained muscle pain and tenderness.

What cancers cause lower back pain? ›

Blood and tissue cancers such as multiple myeloma, lymphoma, and melanoma can all cause lower back pain.

How much lower back pain is too much? ›

Symptoms of Low Back Pain

The pain may make it hard to move or stand up straight. Pain that comes on suddenly is “acute.” It might happen during sports or heavy lifting. Pain that lasts more than 3 months is considered “chronic.” If your pain is not better within 72 hours, you should consult a doctor.

Why is back pain at night a red flag? ›

Back pain red flags – Night Pain

Back pain that worsens at night or while you're sleeping might indicate something more severe like an infection or cancer. This is especially true if you also have other symptoms in addition to your back discomfort when you sleep or relax.


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