Common Symptoms of Low Back Pain

If you have back pain, you may be wondering what is causing your symptoms. A visit to your physical therapist can help determine the cause of your pain and can find the best treatment strategy for your symptoms.

A woman working out the pain in her low back
Peter Dazeley / Photographer's Choice / Getty Images

Low back pain affects nearly everyone at one time or another. It can often start without warning and for no apparent reason. The pain typically can last from a few days to many weeks, and it can limit your ability to perform such simple tasks like sitting, rising from a chair, bending, or walking upright.

Anatomy of Your Spine

The low back, or lumbar spine, is composed of 5 bones that are stacked one upon another. Between the bones is a soft spongy disc. There is a joint on either side of your spine where one bone articulates with the ones above and below it. Your spinal cord and nerves are protected by these bones and discs. Many muscles and ligaments attach to the lumbar spine, giving it a combination of mobility and stability.

There are many nerves that originate in the low back. Some of these nerves stay in the low back, while some travel to other parts of the body, such as the buttocks or legs. Therefore, symptoms of low back problems can be felt in many places in the body.

This can make diagnosis and treatment of low back problems confusing and difficult. By monitoring where you feel the pain and understanding how your pain is changing, you can help your healthcare provider or physical therapist prescribe the best treatment for your low back pain.

Symptoms Coming From Your Back

Here are the most common symptoms of problems coming from the low back:

  1. Central low back pain. Central low back pain is usually caused by small disk bulges or muscular strain in the low back. This type of low back pain usually responds to gentle stretches and postural correction.
  2. Central low back pain with pain down both legs. This presentation is very typical of a condition called spinal stenosis. This condition occurs when the spinal canal is too narrow and the nerves that travel down the legs are compressed. The common presentation of stenosis is low back and leg pain with walking short distances that are relieved with sitting or bending forward at the waist. Research shows that physical therapy can be an effective treatment for spinal stenosis and should be considered before any surgical intervention.
  3. Low back pain to one side or another, but confined to areas above the thigh. This presentation of pain is usually due to muscular strain and should readily respond to postural correction and gentle stretching. A small bulging disc may also cause this type of back pain. Degenerative arthritis may cause some bony overgrowth around a joint in your spine, and this may also pinch a nerve, leading to pain in your back or buttock.
  4. Low back pain to one side that travels down the front of or back of the thigh but does not cross the knee. Usually, pain that travels down the thigh is due to a pinched nerve. Nerves can be pinched by either a bulging or herniated disc, an arthritic facet joint, or an overgrowth of bony material, such as a bone spur. Pain may or may not be accompanied by numbness or tingling in the thigh, and muscle weakness may also be present.
  5. Low back pain to one side that travels down the leg and into the calf, ankle, or foot. Pain that travels from the low back to the lower leg is called sciatica. This is considered by many to be the most severe presentation of low back pain. The pain may or may not be accompanied by numbness or tingling. This is usually caused by a pinched nerve from a lumbar disc, an arthritic joint, or a bone spur.

If pain is accompanied by the sudden loss of muscular strength or loss of bowel or bladder control, an immediate visit to a healthcare provider is necessary.

A Word From Verywell

Most episodes of low back pain are short-lived and go away without treatment. Unfortunately, once you have low back pain, you are likely to have more episodes, and occasionally these worsen with the passage of time. It is important to maintain a strong and mobile spine to help prevent worsening low back pain. Basic exercises performed once or twice per day are a good way to keep your spine healthy.

By understanding where your pain is felt and what is possibly causing your pain, you can help your healthcare provider or physical therapist prescribe the best treatment to ensure a positive outcome and a rapid return to normal function.

Was this page helpful?
5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Low back pain fact sheet. Updated August 13, 2019.

  2. Casiano VE, De NK. Back Pain. [Updated 2019 Feb 24]. In: StatPearls. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2019 Jan.

  3. Zaina F, Tomkins-Lane C, Carragee E, Negrini S. Surgical versus non-surgical treatment for lumbar spinal stenosisCochrane Database Syst Rev. 2016;2016(1):CD010264. Published 2016 Jan 29. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD010264.pub2

  4. El Sayed M, Callahan AL. Mechanical back strain. [Updated 2019 May 30]. In: StatPearls. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2019 Jan

  5. Davis D, Vasudevan A. Sciatica. [Updated 2019 Feb 28]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2019 Jan