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'When you try to stand up but you're rooted to the spot'

85% of adults will suffer an episode of lumbago in their life

YOLANDA VEIGA

'I went to stand up from the poolside deckchair and I was rooted to the spot. A two-week holiday with lumbago. Every time I sat down and had to sit up straight it was horrible; I couldn't find a comfortable position. And the usual painkillers hardly mitigated the pain, I felt such impotence... I even felt like crying."

Another episode: "I used to carry my daughter; she wasn't heavy because she was a baby, but that effort caused sciatica every day. A constant cramp that started in my lower back and made its way down my leg until it reached my ankle."

You have probably had a similar experience because 85% of the population will suffer lumbar pain at some point, according to data from the Spanish Foundation of Rheumatology. If you've passed the 35 to 40-year-old age barrier, the probabilities increase.

Other risk factors are "physical overexertion, incorrect postures, a sedentary lifestyle and obesity," explained doctor Cristina Macía, spokesperson of the Spanish Society of Rheumatology and a rheumatologist at the Hospital Universitario Severo Ochoa, in Madrid.

Lumbago or sciatica?

"Lumbago is the pain in the lower back caused by alterations in the different structures that make up the spine at that point, such as ligaments, muscles, vertebral discs and vertebrae. And we talk about chronic lumbago when the pain lasts for more than six weeks."

In the case of the sciatica, "The cause is the compression of the sciatic nerve in the last vertebral discs in the lumbar area, which means that the patient, as well as feeling pain in that area, will have symptoms derived from the alteration of that nerve, such as a burning sensation or tingling, around the leg and possibly all the way down to the foot."

The cure

Those who have suffered these conditions say that the cure seems long and painful. "Normally, these are cases that improve with conservative treatment, mainly with relative rest (never absolute), dry heat in the area, stretching exercises once the most severe phase of pain is over, and treatment for the pain itself (through painkillers and anti-inflammatories)," explained doctor Macía. She also said: "Only in special cases, where there is a correctable alteration, like a hernia, will patients be able to have surgery."

Lying down or standing up?

Lumbago, rheumatologists explained, can have a mechanical origin (vertebral disc degeneration, osteoarthritis in the vertebrae, fractures caused by osteoporosis, spinal muscular atrophy, scoliosis) or an inflammatory one (its cause is in specific illnesses that produce an inflammation of the structures that make up the spinal column, with the most well-known case being ankylosing spondylitis). And depending on that origin, you can get better either by standing up or on your back.

"When the cause is mechanical you get worse because you're always on your feet and by lying down the pain is relieved or disappears completely. However, the inflammatory lumbar pain usually appears during the night, in the early hours of the morning, which wakes the person up and forces them to get up from their bed. Daily activities, instead of making the pain worse, alleviate it and can even eliminate it," said the Spanish Foundation of Rheumatology.

Warning signs

Although painful, most of the time lumbar pain has a benign cause. "When there are symptoms like a significant amount of weight loss, fever, lack of control over urine and bowels, loss of strength, heightened sensitivity and a pain that constantly wakes you up in the middle of the night, [tests must be carried out] to rule out neoplasia, as that is something serious," said the rheumatologist.