by Nicole Berardoni M.D, Tory McJunkin M.D, and Paul Lynch M.D.

Low back pain is one of the most frequent musculoskeletal complaints. Pain may arise from damage or irritation to structures of the lower back including the vertebrae (bony spine), facet joints, discs between the vertebrae, vertebral ligaments, muscles of the lower back, spinal cord, and peripheral nerves, as well as internal organs of the pelvis and abdomen (spleen, kidney, pancreas, and liver).

Typically the symptoms of low back pain resolve within four weeks, depending on the pathology associated with the complaint. However, the pain often returns, leading to a high percentage of the U.S> population with a chronic condition that requires lower back pain management.

Anatomy of the Lower Back

Bony structures

Understanding the anatomy and physiological function of the lower back is key in evaluating a person with chronic pain. The bony spine is positioned so that individual vertebrae (bones of the spine) interconnect with other spine bones above and below. This provides a flexible support structure while also protecting the spinal cord. Conditions that can produce chronic pain from the spinal bones include:

Facet injections/denervation, vertebroplasty, SI joint injection/denervation, lysis of adhesions, spinal cord stimulation, intrathecal pumps, and other treatments can be extremely effective lower back pain treatment for many of these conditions.

In fact, a study in 2007 concluded that lumbar facet joint nerve blocks with local anesthetic may be effective in the treatment of chronic low back pain of facet joint origin. Physical therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, biofeedback, diet and exercise, along with other alternative techniques have also been helpful (Manchikanti 2007).

Vertebral Discs

Separating adjacent vertebrae are discs that act as cushions to minimize the impact that the spinal column receives. Since the discs are designed to be soft and provide support, they have a tendency to herniate (bulge) posterior (or backwards) through the outer ligaments and cause irritation to the adjacent nerves.

Disc disease is one of the most common causes of chronic low back pain and accounts for approximately 10% of all low back pain complaints. Disc disease may acutely be from herniation resulting from trauma or heavy lifting. More commonly chronic low back pain is caused by degenerative disc disease. Degenerative disk disease is due to thinning and degeneration of the discs and can lead to spinal stenosis, nerve impingement, worsening facet arthritis, or peripheral nerve irritation.

Facet-Joint-InjectionConditions that can produce chronic pain from the discs include:

  • Degenerative disc disease
  • Disc protrusion
  • Disc herniation
  • Disc extrusion
  • Facet joint osteoarthritis
  • Spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal canal)
  • Nerve root irritation or compression (sciatica)
  • Disc infection

Facet injections/denervation, epidural steroid injections, lysis of adhesions, epidural infusions, spinal cord stimulation, intrathecal pumps, and other treatments can be extremely effective treatment for low back pain in many of these conditions.

Spinal Ligaments and Muscles

There are ligaments that attach to each vertebrae and provide strength and mobility to the spine as well as the many groups of muscles that are responsible for the movement of the spine. The nerve roots are attached to the spinal cord and exit the spine to innervate the skin, muscles, and surrounding structures of the back and lower extremities. These muscles and ligaments have a tendency to become strained and irritated during strenuous lifting and excessive exercise and cause local nerve irritation. Myofascial (muscle and connective tissue) and ligament injury may account for the majority of low back pain.

Conditions that can produce chronic pain from ligaments and musculature include:

  • Myofascial pain syndrome
  • Muscular strain
  • Torn muscle
  • Ligamentous strain
  • Ligamentous tear

Trigger point injections widely popularized by Dr. Travell are extremely successful in alleviating and managing lower back  musculoskeletal pain. An alternative therapy that specifically targets ligaments is called prolotherapy. This sort of therapy, also called regenerative injection therapy, has been successful for many chronic pain suffers. Physical therapy, acupuncture, massage, yoga, diet, and exercise have also proven to be effective in treating myofascial pain.

Referred pain

Organs in the abdomen and pelvis can refer pain to the back. Specifically, the kidney, pancreas, spleen, and liver have been known to refer pain to this region. These organs may cause pain that is due to obstruction, inflammation, infection, decreased blood supply, enlargement, or cancer. These “activated nerves” cause referred pain by traveling into the spinal cord at the same level as other structures in the lower back. This can cause a person to experience pain in the back instead of their organs.

Pathology of Low Back Pain

Low-Back-Pain-DiagramCommon causes of low back pain consist of herniated discs, spinal stenosis, strained muscles, sciatica, arthritis (auto-immune vs. non auto-immune), fibromyalgia, vertebral body fractures, and osteoporosis.

Less common causes include infections, Ankylosing spondylitis, psychological causes, and metastatic cancer. Risk factors for malignancy include an age greater than 50, pain not relieved by lying down, symptoms worse at night, and pain for longer than one month.

Acute Low Back Pain

Acute low back pain typically comes on abruptly and occurs during a specific activity. Acute lower back injury is more commonly due to overuse by excessive exercise, lifting of heavy objects, motor vehicle accidents, or any trauma involving the lower back. The anatomy typically involved in acute low back pain is the muscles and surrounding ligaments. Vertebral body fractures, ruptured discs, and spinal cord compressions can also be seen acutely with pre-existing osteoporosis, cancer, or spinal stenosis. Acute pain due to ligament and muscle injury typically responds to activity and NSAIDs (ibuprofen-like drugs). Acute back pain should be evaluated by a physician to rule out other causes like kidney stones, kidney infection, and acute pancreatitis.

In some cases of acute back pain, a specialist and proper imaging is required for immediate evaluation (emergency room, pain specialist, spine surgeon). These cases might include:

  • Acute vertebral compression fractures
  • Acute disc herniation
  • Fever or chills
  • Weakness or paralysis
  • Loss of bowel or bladder control
  • Spinal cord compression

Chronic Low Back Pain

Low-Back-Pain-CausesChronic low back pain is defined as pain over three to six months in duration. Typically the symptoms are more gradual and occur over an extended period of time. With chronic low back pain a person may experience pain in their back as well as down either leg. Causes of chronic low back pain are numerous and include:

  • Arthritis in the facet joint
  • Sacroiliac joint disease
  • Spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal canal)
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Degenerative disc disease
  • Disc protrusion
  • Disc herniation
  • Disc extrusion
  • Facet joint osteoarthritis
  • Nerve root irritation or compression (sciatica)
  • Central sensitization
  • Excessive breast size
  • Poor posture
  • Psychological and emotional factors
  • Vertebral body fractures
  • Osteoporosis
  • Spondylolisthesis
  • Ankylosing spondylitis
  • Neoplasms
  • Infections

Central sensitization is a common complication associated with chronic pain of all kinds. This is a development involving both the peripheral nervous system (PNS) and the central nervous system (CNS). Local tissue injury and inflammation activate the PNS, which sends signals through the spinal cord to the brain.

Central sensitization occurs when there is an increase in the excitability of neurons within the CNS at the level of the spinal cord and higher. Eventually normal inputs from the PNS begin to produce abnormal responses. Low-threshold sensory fibers activated by very light touch of the skin activate neurons in the spinal cord that normally only respond to painful stimuli. As a result, an input that would normally produce a harmless sensation now produces significant pain.

Sacroiliac-Joint-DiseaseSacroiliac joint (SIJ) disease is another major cause of low back pain. The SIJ is located at the junction between the spine and the pelvis. Many muscles and ligaments support the SIJ. This joint allows the weight of the spine and upper body to be transmitted into the pelvis and finally into the legs. The SIJ is richly innervated by free nerve endings and spinal nerve roots, explaining the severe pain caused by inflammation in the SIJ. Pain associated with SIJ can worsen with sitting for long periods of time, or twisting motions and certain movements. Often the pain begins spontaneously, while others recognize a specific traumatic event that triggered the occurrence of the pain.

While conservative treatment for lower back pain such as NSAIDs and physical therapy may be effective, Murakami and Tanaka reported in 2007 that the effect of periarticular lidocaine injection into the SIJ was 96% effective in pain improvement in patients with SIJ complaints with minimal complications (Murakami 2007). Arizona Pain Specialists now offer SIJ injections and longer lasting denervation procedures for better management of low back pain when warranted.

Diagnosis of Low Back Pain

Diagnosis of low back pain can be difficult and the pain physicians at Arizona Pain Specialists have received extra training to examine and diagnose your painful condition. The physician may perform a physical exam testing tenderness over certain areas of the spine as well as assessing the various limitations in movement. The physician may also order radiological imaging such as X-ray, CT scan, MRI, or bone scan depending on his or her clinical suspicion and the history obtained.

Lower Back Pain Treatment Options

Epidural Steroid InjectionsBed rest is contraindicated in most causes of low back pain. Staying active and physical therapy are indicated. There are many interventions offered by Arizona Pain Specialists for those with severe low back pain to assist you in managing your pain. Below we list a basic overview of pain relief options.

We are happy to offer these exciting pain management techniques to the Phoenix area:

  • Pharmacotherapy: NSAIDs (ibuprofen-like drugs), acetaminophen (such as Tylenol), muscle relaxants, and membrane-stabilizing medications are often effective in treating low back pain.
  • Epidural steroid injections: Epidurals are frequently used for pain syndromes due to common conditions, such as degenerative disc disease. This method involves injecting a steroid into the epidural space of the spinal cord where the irritated nerve roots are located. The medicine then spreads to other levels and portions of the spine, reducing inflammation and irritation.
  • Medial branch blocks and denervation: Medial branch blocks (MBBs) is a minimally invasive non-surgical treatment that is used for arthritis-related neck and back pain. The injections work by reducing the inflammation and irritation in the facet joints of the spine that is causing pain.
  • Lysis of adhesions: Also known as the “Racz Procedure,” this procedure has been proven effective in removing excessive scar tissue in the epidural space when conservative treatment for lower back pain has failed. A study performed in 2005 noted that “a spinal adhesiolysis with targeted delivery of local anesthetic and steroid is an effective treatment in a significant number of patients with chronic low back and lower extremity pain without major adverse effects.” This procedure is used in patients with vertebral body compression fractures, post-laminectomy syndrome, radiculopathy, and disc disease.
  • Infusion techniques: This procedure involves inserting a small catheter through a needle into the epidural space or directly next to affected nerves. Local anesthetic and other medicines are often given through the catheter for extended time periods. When the nerves are blocked continuously with an infusion, pain relief can be dramatic and long-lasting.
  • Spinal cord stimulation (SCS): This is an implanted electrical device that decreases the perception of pain by confusing the spinal cord and brain pain processing centers. Initially a trial is done to see if this device will help you long-term. In the initial trial, your pain physician places a small electrical lead in the epidural space through a needle. Painful signals are replaced by tingling electrical signals. If you have success in your trial, you may decide to have a permanent SCS device implanted.
  • Peripheral nerve stimulation: This method involves tiny electrodes being placed close to the affected nerves. The electrodes release a small electrical current that inhibits pain transmission and may provide pain relief.
  • Kyphoplasty and vertebroplasty: These procedures are both minimally invasive procedures that can treat osteoporotic fractures. The method is to stabilize crushed vertebrae by injecting an acrylic cement into the vertebra. Vertebroplasty is effective in relieving pain, most likely because of the added support and stability it provides the spine.
  • Intrathecal pump implants: Implanted pain pumps are also available that can be extremely helpful by providing long-term pain control. The effectiveness of intrathecal therapy in patients suffering from nociceptive pain showed a pain reduction in 66.7% of patients experiencing pain due to cancer (Becker 2000).
  • Percutaneous discectomy: In this procedure, a needle is inserted through the skin into the affected disc. Disc material is suctioned out of the bulging disc and pressure is relieved within the disc.
  • Disc denervation: Needles are placed along the vertebral bodies in close proximity to the discs and electrical stimulation is initiated. When the appropriate nerves are located, they are anesthetized and destroyed using electricity.
  • Cryotherapy: A probe is placed through a needle near affected painful nerves. Electrical stimulation is done to verify position and freezing cycles are initiated over the painful nerves.
  • Peripheral nerve blocks and ablation: Nerves away from the spinal cord are called peripheral nerves. These nerves can often be sources of pain and can be blocked with local anesthetic. When pain relief is obtained, ablation or destruction can be initiated.
  • Trigger point injections: These can be an effective treatment for muscle spasms. The procedure involves injecting a local anesthetic and steroid into a “trigger point.”
  • Botox: Used in treating neck pain, this is an exciting new treatment that is becoming widely accepted among modern medical practitioners. In 2005, “Botulinum toxin Type A (BtA) became the first line therapy for the treatment for cervical dystonia.” Although a single injection of BtA is effective, multiple injection cycles seem to work better for patients (Costa 2005). Botox injections have also been found to be effective in patients with whiplash injuries. Along with reductions in pain, patients were found to have improved range of motion (Juan 2004).
  • Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS): This is a technique that relieves pain by applying mild electric current to the skin at the site of the pain. The electric impulses interfere with normal pain sensations and alter perceptions that were previously painful.
  • Biofeedback: This is a treatment that teaches a patient to become aware of processes that are normally thought to be involuntary inside of the body (such as blood pressure, temperature, and heart rate control). This method enables you to gain some conscious control of these processes, which can influence and improve your level of pain. A better awareness of one’s body teaches one to effectively relax, and this can help to relieve pain.
  • Physical therapy: In order to decrease or prevent functional limitations, physical therapy and occupational therapy are recommended as well as medical treatments.
  • Acupuncture: Small needles are inserted into the skin during this procedure. These needles cause your body to release hormones called endorphins that are your body’s natural pain relievers. Acupuncture can also help you relax, decreasing stress, tension, and muscular spasm.
  • Nutrition and exercise: Exercise improves the pain of sciatica by increasing flexibility and range of motion. Another benefit is the release of hormones called endorphins that are your body’s natural pain relievers. Nutrition and healthy eating may be powerful treatments to combat nutritional deficits.
  • Massage: Gentle focal rubbing of the tender areas may help relieve muscle spasms or contractions and improve the discomfort associated with it. Massage can also help you relax, decreasing stress and tension.
  • Chiropractic manipulations: Targeted adjustments, especially combined with other modalities, may significantly reduce low back pain. Manipulations are undertaken in order to allow correct nerve transmission.
  • Prolotherapy: Also known as regenerative injection therapy, this is a technique of injecting irritating substances into painful ligaments and tendons. The procedure is used to initiate the body’s healing of a damaged ligament or tendon.


Surgical procedures are typically done when all conservative managements are unsuccessful in reducing pain or when the spinal cord or exiting nerves are being severely compressed. Serious compressions are characterized by bladder or bowel incontinence, lower extremity weakness, spasticity, or loss of sensation.

Invasive surgical procedures include:

  • Discectomy
  • Laminectomy
  • Spinal fusion
  • Spinal instrumentation

Long-term, surgical fusion or discectomy may not provide relief. In addition, surgical options for low back pain were found to be associated with a significant risk of complications, including bleeding, nerve damage, epidural scarring, and prolonged recovery times. Surgical procedures are typically done when conservative management by pain specialists have been exhausted, life-threatening complications have ensued, or neurological symptoms like weakness, bowel or bladder changes, or loss of sensation have occurred. The evidence at the present time does not support routine surgical fusion or surgery for the treatment of chronic lower back pain alone.

There have been great strides in lower back pain treatments and pain management. Early intervention can make a big difference.

At Arizona Pain, our goal is to relieve your low back pain and improve function to increase your quality of life.
Give us a call today at 480-563-6400.

Journal Articles

  • Early intervention for the management of acute low back pain: a single-blind randomized controlled trial of biopsychosocial education, manual therapy, and exercise. PMID: 15507794. Spine. 2004 Nov 1;29(21):2350-6.
  • Surgical management of neck and low back pain. PMID: 17445741 Neurol Clin. 2007 May;25(2):507-22. Clinical Trials: 2007;10;425-440.
  • Evaluation of Lumbar Facet Joint Nerve Blocks in the Management of Chronic Low Back Pain: Preliminary Report of a Randomized, Double-Blind Controlled Trial: Clinical Trial NCT00355914 Laxmaiah Manchikanti, MD, Kavita N. Manchikanti, BA, Rajeev Manchukonda, BDS, Kimberly A. Cash, RT, Kim S. Damron, RN, Vidyasagar Pampati, MSc, and Carla D. McManus, RN, BSN
  • Surgical versus non-surgical treatment of chronic low back pain: a meta-analysis of randomised trials. PMID: 17119962 Int Orthop. 2006 Nov 21
  • Physiotherapist-Directed Exercise, Advice, or Both for Subacute Low Back Pain: A Randomized Trial Liset H.M. Pengel, Kathryn M. Refshauge, Christopher G. Maher, Michael K. Nicholas, Robert D. Herbert, and Peter McNair Abstract for study:
  • “Meta-Analysis: Acupuncture for Low Back Pain.” 19 April 2005 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine (volume 142, pages 651-663). E. Manheimer, A. White, B. Berman, K. Forys, and E. Ernst Summary of study:
  • A randomized, controlled trial of spinal endoscopic adhesiolysis in chronic refractory low back and lower extremity pain
[ISRCTN 16558617] Laxmaiah Manchikanti1 BMC Anesthesiology 2005, 5:10 doi:10.1186/1471-2253-5-10
  • Effect of periarticular and intraarticular lidocaine injections for sacroiliac joint pain: prospective comparative study. Murakami E, Tanaka Y, Aizawa T, Ishizuka M, Kokubun S. J Orthop Sci. 2007 May;12(3):274-80. Epub 2007 May 31 PMID: 17530380.