What Causes Back Pain?

Medically Reviewed By Gregory Minnis, DPT
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Back pain, especially lower back pain, is a common condition. Most people will experience back pain at some point in their life. It typically eases within a few weeks, but it can last longer or return later on. This article will discuss common causes of back pain. It will also talk about the risk factors for experiencing back pain, when to contact a doctor, treatments, and surgery options.

What causes back pain?

The back of a female with her hands resting on her lower back
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The exact causes of back pain are not completely understood. The majority of the time, those with back pain do not have any serious damage to their spine. The pain actually originates in the muscles, ligaments, and joints.

There are three types of back pain, and these are:

  • Acute: This type occurs unexpectedly and typically only lasts for a few days to a few weeks.
  • Subacute: This type either happens suddenly or over time and generally lasts for 4–12 weeks.
  • Chronic: This type can either begin quickly or slowly, and it tends to last for more than 12 weeks.

There are many different types of issues that can lead to back pain. These include structural and mechanical issues, inflammatory conditions, and other medical conditions.

Structural and mechanical issues

Structural and mechanical issues that can cause back pain include:

  • Sprain: This is an injury to the ligaments that support your spine. It is typically the result of lifting or twisting improperly.
  • Strain: This is an injury to the muscles or tendons.
  • Herniated or ruptured disc: This is when the discs compress and cause irritation to the nerves nearby.
  • Spinal stenosis: This is when a narrowing of the spaces in your spine occurs, which can compress the nerve roots that exit each vertebra.
  • Degenerative disc disease: This is the result of aging, which causes the discs between your vertebrae to break down.
  • Spondylolisthesis: This is when one of your vertebrae slips out of place.
  • Fractured vertebrae: This is typically the result of a high energy trauma such as a car collision or a fall from a great height. It is also sometimes due to bone insufficiency, ranging in severity.
  • Scoliosis: This is a condition where your spine curves and twists to the side.
  • Sciatica: This is a condition where the sciatic nerve that runs from your lower back to your feet becomes irritated or compressed.

Inflammatory conditions

Inflammatory conditions that can cause back pain include:

  • Spinal osteoarthritis: This is the most common type of arthritis that affects the back. It can occur anywhere along your spine. Typically, the lower back and neck are the most affected areas.
  • Ankylosing spondylitis: This is a type of arthritis that affects the joints and ligaments of your spine. It can lead to stiffness and, eventually, even rigidity and inflexibility of your spine.

Other medical conditions

There are many other medical conditions that can cause back pain. These include:

What other symptoms might occur with back pain?

Typically, back pain is either contained to one area or spreads all over your back. It can also spread to other areas of the body. The severity of the pain generally varies from person to person.

Depending on where the pain is and what is causing it, you may also experience symptoms such as:

  • pain that increases when you bend or lift
  • stiffness in the morning
  • pain that decreases with activity
  • pain that worsens when sitting, standing, or resting
  • pain that comes and goes
  • pain that radiates into your legs, hips, or buttocks

What are the risk factors for back pain?

Anyone can experience back pain. However, there are certain things that may put you at a greater risk of developing back pain.

These risk factors can include:

  • smoking
  • being pregnant
  • having poor posture
  • lacking physically activity
  • being overweight or having obesity
  • having an underlying condition like arthritis

Your age can have an effect on your back pain as well. Experiencing back pain is more common as you age, particularly after the age of 45. It is also hereditary, with genetics playing a role in many conditions that can cause back pain.

Read about 7 mistakes people make when managing back pain.

When should you contact a doctor for back pain?

If your back pain does not go away within a few weeks, it is important to contact your doctor for medical care. You should also seek medical care if you experience any of the following symptoms:

If your pain begins to interfere with your daily activities or causes you concern in any way, contact your doctor.

How do you treat back pain?

There are several medications that may help ease your back pain. Consult with your doctor before taking any medication regularly.

Medications to help manage back pain include:

  • steroids
  • acetaminophen
  • muscle relaxers
  • nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin and ibuprofen

Along with medications, your doctor may recommend other treatments, including:

  • braces
  • traction
  • physical therapy
  • chiropractic or manipulation therapy
  • other exercise-based programs, such as yoga or Pilates

What surgeries do doctors use to treat back pain?

Typically, surgery for back pain is only an option if you have tried nonsurgical treatment options for 6 months to 1 year and they have not improved your symptoms.

Not everyone who experiences back pain is a candidate for surgery. Some chronic pain is simply unable to be cured with surgery.

If you are a candidate, the doctor may consider the following types of surgery.

Spinal fusion

Spinal fusion is a surgery that fuses together painful vertebrae in order for them to heal into one solid bone. This eliminates the movement between the vertebrae.

Doctors typically use this procedure when movement is the cause of the pain. Full recovery from this surgery can take over 1 year.

Disc replacement

This surgery involves removing one of your discs and replacing it with an artificial one. The goal of this surgery is for people to maintain their usual motion and some flexibility.

Although this is not a new procedure, there are many who still consider it controversial, compared with the results that come from spinal fusion.

Discectomy

This type of surgery involves removing the damaged portion of a herniated disc. This is done in order to resolve the pressure on your nerve and help any sciatica pain you may be experiencing.

Laminectomy

This is a type of surgery where a surgeon removes all or part of the vertebral bone. This helps ease the pressure on the spinal cord or nerve roots.

Kyphoplasty or vertebroplasty

During this surgery, the doctor injects medical cement into a broken bone in order to help stabilize a compression fracture. The idea of this procedure is to help eliminate the sharp pain that you experience with the fracture.

How can you manage back pain at home?

There are ways you can manage back pain at home. At-home management of back pain includes:

  • talking with your doctor about exercises that can help
  • staying physically active as much as possible
  • wearing comfortable shoes
  • sleeping on your side with a small pillow between your knees
  • limiting the amount of weight you lift and carry
  • eating a healthy diet that includes calcium and vitamin D
  • maintaining a target weight
  • practicing good posture
  • lifting heavy objects using your legs and abdominal muscles instead of your back

Learn about posture correctors and if they really work.

Summary

Back pain is a common condition that most people will experience at some point in their life. It is often due to structural issues, inflammatory issues, or other medical conditions.

Back pain is typically either acute, lasting only a few weeks, or chronic, lasting more than 12 weeks. There are many ways to manage back pain at home, such as exercising, maintaining a target weight, and being aware of your posture.

Your doctor can also recommend medications and therapies that may help manage the pain. In some cases, you may require surgery to improve symptoms.

If you have back pain that is interfering with your daily life, causing numbness or tingling, or causing stress, contact your doctor.

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Medical Reviewer: Gregory Minnis, DPT
Last Review Date: 2022 Jun 29
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