My Lower Back is Killing Me – Have I been Cooped up by COVID-19 Restrictions for too Long?

Orthopaedic & Spine Center
Dr. Mark McFarland

Here we are in February 2021 and it’s been almost a year since COVID-19 was first discovered in the United States.  Goodness, have our lives changed and who’d have thought we’d still be wearing masks, physically distancing, avoiding crowds and public places with many of us continuing to work from home.  We venture out to the grocery store, the doctor’s office, to church, and maybe to a friend’s house.  We’re pretty much keeping to ourselves and our immediate family, at home, trying not to get sick or spread the virus, while we wait for everyone to be vaccinated. It’s been a slow and painful process, that’s for sure.

I’ve been hearing from my patients that they are experiencing aches and pains, especially in the lower back, and often when they try to increase their activity level. When I question them about it, they usually admit that this extended quarantine period has caused them to stop working out or to become even more sedentary than they were before COVID-19.  Why is that?

I’m not sure why, but just because Dr. Fauci and the CDC have recommended people stay at home and avoid being in public, many think this is a prescription to eat as much junk food and drink as much alcohol as they want, while binge watching TV and getting little to no exercise. And their lower back hurts. 

Alternatively, maybe they eat well, work out and are thinking about starting their own DYI show on HGTV, because they’re getting so much good stuff done around the house. Yes, the neighbors are all jealous of their beautiful home and yard.  Yet, their lower back is hurting, and they aren’t sure why.

No matter what group you fall into (or none of the above) lower back pain is often caused by muscle strain and sprain.  Little injuries or microtears in the muscle fibers typically add up over time and then all of a sudden, our lower back starts hurting really bad.  Of course, there are other mechanical problems, such as arthritis of the spine, pinched nerves, slipped discs or spinal instability that can cause lower back issues, but more often than not, these cause pain in the buttocks, down the legs, calves and into the feet.  Hip issues, such as arthritis, can also cause referred pain to the lower back.

If you are having lower back pain, here are some remedies to try at home:

  1. Try Naproxen Sodium or Ibuprofen for pain relief from inflammation.  Take it regularly for at least a week.
  2. Try alternating ice and heat.  Hot showers and baths may provide relief.  Massage may help.  Topical creams may also provide pain relief.
  3. Gentle stretching of the lower back is recommended and should be done 2-3 times a day.  Stay active but modify activities if painful.
  4. Get some exercise. Walking, yoga or swimming is recommended.
  5. If working at a desk, make sure you’re sitting in an ergonomically correct chair with your lower back supported.

If after a week or so, your symptoms haven’t improved, you may need to be seen in the office for a work-up.  I can do a complete exam and get x-rays to check you for any mechanical issues, such as arthritis, you may be experiencing. If you’re in the high-risk category for COVID-19, I can also do a video consult with you over a secure internet line. 

Muscle sprains and strains, while painful, usually heal in a few weeks.  I typically prescribe muscle relaxants and NSAIDs and once the initial painful phase has passed, Physical Therapy is very helpful to increase core muscle strength and stability.

If I find a mechanical issue on x-ray, or conservative treatment doesn’t help, I may order an MR scan to help me better visualize the soft tissues of the lower back, so that I can see any possible disc herniations, pinched nerves or other issues.  There are non-surgical treatments that can be utilized for these conditions as well and some people do not require surgical intervention for pain relief.