Consumers and carers

Acute short-term low back pain

The exact cause of low back pain can be difficult to identify. Download a factsheet about managing back pain.

The exact cause of your acute low back pain may be difficult to identify but in most cases it is related to things like muscle strain rather than conditions like nerve or bone damage, infection or cancer. Talk to your healthcare provider about how to manage your low back pain.

Do you need imaging?

Your healthcare provider might recommend an X-ray, MRI or CT scan if the test is likely to help find out what is causing your pain and how best to treat it. Imaging may be appropriate if your healthcare provider suspects you have:

  • a broken bone in your spine
  • new back pain and a current or previous cancer diagnosis
  • other symptoms along with your acute low back pain (eg, difficulty passing urine or weakness/numbness in your legs)
  • infection in your spine
  • ankylosing spondylitis (a form of spinal arthritis)
  • a need for imaging to evaluate or plan a surgical procedure on your spine.

However, most people with acute low back pain feel better after a month – and often sooner – whether they have imaging tests done or not.

Unnecessary tests can be costly, and X-rays and CT scans involve exposure to radiation that is best avoided if the results are unlikely to help with your treatment.

What can you do?

Stay active and keep moving

Move about and stretch regularly – reduce your activities for a couple of days, but resting longer than this is not going to help you recover more quickly. Avoid staying in one position – such as sitting at your computer, watching TV or lying down – for more than 20–30 minutes at a time.

Use non-medicine treatments

Speak to your healthcare provider about other treatments that might be right for you such as hot or cold packs, physical therapy, relaxation techniques and deep breathing exercises to help you to stay calm and cope with the pain.

Use symptom-relief medicines

Use a simple non-prescription pain reliever medicine, to reduce the pain enough to help you stay active. In most cases, regularly-taken paracetamol should be the first choice of pain reliever as it has fewer side effects than other pain relief medicines.

It's OK to ask questions

If you have questions about imaging tests for your low back pain, speak with your doctor or other healthcare provider.

5 Questions

5 questions to ask your doctor or other healthcare provider to make sure you end up with the right amount of care.

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