Your "lumbar spine", or low back, is constructed from five bones that are stacked on top of each other with a disc that absorbs shock found in each level. Your lower back is very reliant on it's surrounding muscles and ligaments for support.
"Sprains" and "strains" occur when these supportive tissues are stretched and pulled too hard or to far. The medical term "sprain" refers to a situation when the tough, durable ligaments that support your bones and keep them together have been damaged, while "strain" means that your muscles or tendons that move your trunk have been partially torn.
Understanding Low Back Pain
At some point in our lives most of us will experience low back pain, and 70% of those patients can attribute their symptoms to sprain/strain injuries. Lumbar sprains and strains often are a direct result from sudden or forceful movements like a fall, twist, lift, push, pull, direct blow, or quickly straightening up from a seated, crouched, or bent position. In most cases sprains and strains are not the result an isolated incident or a single movement, but instead often from repeated overloading.
The spine very good at managing small isolated movements, but if these improper movements are repetitive then they can lead to injury in much the same way that constantly bending a piece of copper wire will cause it to break. Some common forms of these stressors include: bad postures, sedentary lifestyles, poor fitting workstations, repetitive movements, improper lifting, or being overweight.
In some cases symptoms for strains and sprains can start very suddenly, but more often then build up and develop over time. Symptoms can vary from a dull discomfort to surprisingly debilitating pain that builds and becomes more intense when you move. While rest may relieve your symptoms temporarily it also often leads to stiffness. The pain you experience will likely be centered in your lower back but can spread towards your hips or thighs. Always inform your physician if your pain extends beyond your knee, or if you have weakness in your lower extremities or a fever.
Sprain/strain injuries damage your normal healthy elastic tissue and then replace it with a less elastic form of tissue known as "scar tissue." This process can in many cases lead to ongoing pain and even arthritis. Patients who make the decision not to undertake forms of treatment and instead elect to "just deal with it" develop chronic low back pain more than 60% of the time. Seeking treatment as the earliest possible convince is always the best course of action.
Depending on the condition of your injury and how severe the damage is, you may need consider limiting your activity for a period of time. While you may think that bed rest is a good option for feeling better, in many cases this actually makes the condition worse. If you are able you should try to remain active and return to your daily activities as your symptoms allow. It also may be wise to avoid sitting for long periods of time. This is because sitting makes your back temporarily more vulnerable to sprains and strains from sudden or unexpected movements.
One simple tactic to reduce your symptoms is to plan to take "micro breaks" from workstations for 10 seconds every 20 minutes. If you are suffering from an acute injury, you can apply ice for 15-20 minutes each hour. Heat may also be a helpful option after several days or for more chronic origins of pain. Be sure to ask your doctor for specific ice/heat recommendations. Some patients report partial relief from sports creams.