If you’ve been battling back pain for more than two to three weeks, it’s time to schedule a visit to your doctor. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Lower back pain is one of the most common ailments, affecting millions of people every year. It can come on quick, delivering sharp, powerful pain that can last days or weeks—or longer.

And society has done us no favors, as workplaces and lifestyles can often set us up to fail when it comes to back issues.

“We were originally hunters and gatherers and now we sit at desks and eat fast food,” Matthew Karek, MD, an orthopedic spine surgeon with Spectrum Health, said. “Many back problems are a result of lifestyle issues such as diet, lack of exercise and poor ergonomics.”

By making careful changes to your work environment, your lifestyle and your daily habits, you can help improve your outcome.

Acute lower back pain

Acute lower back pain is typically a muscular issue associated with a strain or sprain.

Lifting something heavy or awkward. Moving in a weird way. Sleeping in a different position. All can lead to lower back pain, which can be severe.

Typically the pain lasts only a few weeks and gets better on its own, Dr. Karek said.

Tumors, infections and fractures can cause this, too, but these culprits are much less common.

“Sometimes you will stretch or pull a muscle in a weird way. And they tighten up or knot up,” he said. “Pain can be very severe. So much so that you would think your back is broken in half, it hurts that bad.”

Symptoms and treatment

Back pain in any form is not something to ignore. If it doesn’t get better in two to three weeks, you should see your primary care provider, Dr. Karek said.

Symptoms of acute lower back pain include aches, sharp pains and muscle spasms. You may feel pain when you move quickly, or when you recreate the movement that initially caused the pain.

If you have pain down your legs, it can be a sign of a disc herniation, Dr. Karek said.

Sometimes lower back pain can be followed by lower-extremity sciatica pain, a condition that can improve on its own, although it could take several months, he said.

“The best course of treatment is to alternate heat and ice, over-the-counter medications and short-term rest, followed by gentle return to activity” Dr. Karek said. “If ice or heat feels great, stick with it. But avoid using heating pads.”

If the pain doesn’t subside in a few days, contact your doctor for alternative pain medication or muscle relaxers.

You might also find relief by using a back roller, or by stretching or lying flat on a hard surface.

“If you’re in severe pain, work on getting that to subside first,” Dr. Karek said. “Then push things along and try a back roller or stretches when you’re feeling a bit better.”

Gym time—helpful or harmful?

Dr. Karek sees a lot of people who have lower back pain as a result of certain training or lifting techniques.

“A common scenario is squats,” he said. “If you are going to lift heavy weights it makes sense to work with a trainer to make sure you are utilizing proper form.”

Lifting a lot of weight on your shoulders can cause back pain, too.

Keep in mind that free weights are generally harder on your back than cable weight machines. Technique is very important when using free weights, Dr. Karek said.

If you’re a new gym member, start with cable weight machines. They have easy-to-follow instructions. Have a trainer show you around and get you on a weightlifting regimen.

When can you work out after suffering a back injury?

“If you can tolerate the pain, it’s OK to push through it,” Dr. Karek said. “If you can’t, or the pain is severe, I’d take a break from the gym.”

Sit or stand?

Sitting for an extended period of time is bad for your health. If you work in an office environment—or even if you’re working from home—Dr. Karek recommends using a standing desk.

“I have a standing desk and I love it,” he said. “I encourage people who work from home to use standing desks, too. It’s easy to set up and you’ll feel the benefits almost right away.”

If you are in a situation that requires you to sit for a long time, take frequent breaks—get up, stretch and walk around.

Try to mix it up if you’re in an office where a standing desk is not an option. Take breaks to stand and move your body, or take a short walk when you have a few extra minutes.

But whenever possible, standing is the way to go.

“I can’t see a downside to standing all day,” he said. “You might get tired, but if you do it all the time your muscles will continue to strengthen.”

This helps with neck and back issues, too, he said.

“And you’re burning calories while working, which is an added bonus.”

When to see a doctor

Some types of pain can be a warning sign of more serious trouble.

If you have severe leg pain, you should see a your doctor or go to the ER. This could be a sign of a herniated disc. This pain can often be effectively treated non-operatively, but it may require prescription medications, physical therapy or back injections.

If you have back pain that has lasted longer than two to three weeks, it’s time to see your primary care provider.

Usually, if your pain is not better in six to eight weeks, it’s time to see a specialist.

Chronic back pain is any pain that lasts more than 12 weeks. There are many different causes for this sort of back pain, and they may require a careful diagnosis and specialized treatment from your doctor.

“Chronic back pain can be debilitating for those experiencing it and difficult to treat,” Dr. Karek said. “This makes it a frustrating problem for both doctors and patients. Most chronic back pain is likely to improve with time and non-operative treatments.”

You should seek care if your pain is worsening or changing, if you develop any neurological symptoms, or if your pain is associated with fevers, chills or weight loss.

Diet, exercise and healthy lifestyle changes can greatly decrease the chances of developing lower back pain, too, Dr. Karek said.

Eating healthy and keeping your weight down can help alleviate existing problems.

“I have started referring some of my patients to the Spectrum Health Lifestyle Medicine practice at the Downtown Market,” Dr. Karek said. “They help you with making easy lifestyle changes. The outcomes I have seen so far are very impressive.”