Back Pain Causes and Treatments
Are you suffering from back pain? You’re not alone. It is a widespread, prevalent complaint among adults. The American Association of Neurological Surgeons estimates 75 to 85 percent of people will experience back pain at some point in their lifetime. Thankfully, in most cases, you don’t have to suffer through the discomfort for long—back pain is highly treatable and for the majority of people, there are many effective ways to get relief.
In this article, we will highlight the common causes of back pain, different treatment methods available, and preventative steps you can take to avoid experiencing discomfort in the future.
Causes of Back Pain
Back pain happens for a number of different reasons and ranges from dull to severe. These are some of the typical underlying causes of discomfort in the back:
Spinal stenosis refers to the narrowing of the spaces within the spinal column. Signs you may be experiencing stenosis are a pain in the lower back and neck. Symptoms start gradually but worsen over time.
This condition is usually associated with aging, but can also be caused by spinal injuries, overgrowth of bone, tumors, and/or a herniated disc.
Muscle or Ligament Strain
When the soft tissue surrounding the spine is damaged, muscle strain is the result. It can also happen when the muscles are overstretched or overused. Lifting heavy items, lifting improperly, car accidents, sudden movements, and engaging in sports like basketball, football, and golf are the typical causes of this injury.
Muscle strain is the most common culprit of back pain. The good news is, that unless the strain is a severe muscle tear, they are usually easy to diagnose. Plus, strains heal rather quickly with proper supportive care.
Standing or sitting for long periods of time with poor posture can cause discomfort in the back.
Rounding the shoulders and upper back continuously creates unnatural spine alignment and places a great deal of strain on the supporting muscles and ligaments. This may happen after driving long distances hunched over the steering wheel or sitting at a computer desk all day. Sleeping in an unnatural position or on an unsupportive mattress may contribute to pain as well.
Often times, poor posture leads to pain down the road. However, posture can easily be corrected, it just takes consistent effort.
A herniated disc, also sometimes referred to as a bulged disc, is what happens when the soft tissue between the spine’s joints comes out. It typically happens after stress or pressure is placed on the spine.
If left untreated, a herniated disc can lead to permanent nerve damage, so it’s important to seek medical help if you suspect this is the root of your back pain.
Arthritis is a joint disease characterized by stiffness, swelling, and inflammation. It can occur anywhere in the spine, whether it be the neck, upper back, or lower lumbar. Osteoarthritis and ankylosing spondylitis are two of the prevalent kinds of arthritis.
Symptoms of arthritis most often include pain, stiffness, and tenderness in the affected area. Some people may also feel an unpleasant grinding sensation when the spine moves, weakness throughout their entire body, and/or feelings of extreme fatigue.
Osteoporosis is a condition where the body’s bones lose their density and become weak. It is closely related to age. Because the bones are brittle, they fracture much more easily, which is what leads to back pain.
Fractures associated with osteoporosis are most commonly seen in the spine and hip.
Degenerative Disc Disease
Degenerative disc disease refers to a cluster of back and neck pain symptoms. It happens when the discs between the vertebrate tear or shrink and cause the bones to rub together, and this can be painful.
Gradual wear and tear of the spinal discs is a natural part of the aging process, and typically, is what ultimately causes degenerative disc disease. The spine changes with time and age; sometimes, those changes create pain in the body.
Those who struggle with degenerative disc disease often complain of chronic, dull pain paired with the occasional episode of severe pain. They sometimes also experience numbness, weakness, and/or a shooting sensation in their arms or legs.
Treatment Options for Back Pain
In many cases, you can get rid of back pain by simply allowing yourself time to rest and heal. However, in order to properly treat more severe pain, you will need to first have it diagnosed by a health care provider.
- Heat/Ice Therapy: Hot and cold compresses are a great method for managing symptoms and getting fast back pain relief. Warmth increases blood flow while ice temporarily numbs pain and brings inflammation down. We recommend starting with ice for a week or so, and then switching to heat.
- Low Impact Exercises: When you’re in pain, it can be hard to find the motivation to workout. However, a sedentary lifestyle can contribute to stiffness and weakness in the muscles. Ask your doctor which exercises are acceptable for you. A good rule of thumb is a smooth, repetitive motion such as riding a bicycle or swimming.
- Stretching: Stretching helps to keep the back flexible which is important during the healing process. Consider consulting a physician or physical therapist about what stretches will be safest and most beneficial for the pain you’re experiencing.
- Over-the-Counter (OTC) Medication: Ibuprofen or acetaminophen can provide some relief and alleviate pain as your back gains strength and mobility. However, be sure to speak with your doctor before taking any new medication.
- Physical Therapy: A trained physical therapist can help you rehabilitate the back’s muscles and prevent pain from happening in the future. They may show you different stretching and exercise techniques designed to build strength in the affected area.
Prevention of Back Pain
There are many preventative measures you can take to help prevent back pain. Try following these steps to minimize your risk:
Exercising regularly is important for overall health. Strengthening the back and core muscle groups (abdominals, hip flexors, gluteals, and pelvic floor) in particular will help reduce the likelihood of back pain. Low impact exercises such as swimming, walking, or recumbent bike riding are great options, too. These activities allow you to stay active without placing a great deal of pressure on the joints.
Activities that involve twisting and turning like golf or tennis should be avoided.
Stretching Before and After Physical Activity
Taking a few minutes to stretch warms the body up and better prepares it for exercise. Stretching is a crucial step to take before any workout because it helps minimize the risk of injury by increasing circulation in the muscles and maintaining flexibility and mobility of the spine.
Stretching after exercise is important, too. This will prevent stiffness and soreness in the days following your workout.
Maintaining a Healthy Weight
There is a strong correlation between being overweight and struggling with back pain. The excess body weight causes muscles in the back to work much harder. Extra pounds may also continuously push the pelvic area forward, thereby increasing the chance of strain.
To reduce the risk of back pain linked to weight, commit to a healthy lifestyle by eating well and exercising often.
Practice Good Posture
Your posture has a direct effect on your back health. Sitting with incorrect posture day-after-day will often lead to pain because it places excessive pressure on the spine. With time, it may even change the spine’s alignment.
To keep from slouching over when sitting, you can use a lumbar support on your office chair or car seat. Sit up straight with the core engaged for optimal spine health. If you work at a computer, keeping your monitor at eye level will help prevent the shoulders from hunching over.
You may also want to consider taking frequent breaks to stand, walk around, or even stretch the back, neck, and shoulders throughout the day.
Avoid Heavy Lifting
Heavy lifting is one of the most common ways people strain their back. Avoid it the best you can. However, if you do need to lift heavy items, be sure to use the proper technique; Stand in a stable position and make sure you have a good, solid grip. Use the strength of your legs to lift. Do not bend the back or twist the body while lifting, as this can greatly increase the risk of injury.
Wear Supportive, Flat Shoes
Your footwear may be responsible for your back pain, as well. Heels put the foot into an unnatural position and restrict range of motion. Flat shoes and sandals lack stability and offer zero support for our ankles and arches.
Wearing proper shoes, such as an athletic sneaker, will give your feet and ankles the comfort and support they need. For those who need additional arch support, using insoles can help, too.
Use a Mattress with Proper Firmness
Different sleeping positions require different firmness. Based on your sleep style, these are the recommended firmness levels:
- Back Sleepers: Medium-firm to firm mattresses keep the spine neutral and aligned.
- Side Sleepers: Soft to medium beds give the sleeper cushion and support.
- Stomach Sleepers: Firm beds keep the back as close to neutral as possible.
- Combination Sleepers: Medium mattresses offer a balance of comfort and support to maintain spinal alignment regardless of the sleeping position.
When to See a Doctor
When it comes back to back pain, there are a few extreme warning signs to pay close attention to. If you experience any of the symptoms below, we recommend contacting a doctor right away, as they may indicate something more serious or dangerous is going on in the body:
- Pain is debilitating
- Pain is not improving with rest and time
- You notice numbness, tingling, or weakness in one or both legs
- Pain is accompanied by a loss of bladder/bowel function or fever
Frequently Asked Questions
Lower back pain has many causes ranging from sports injuries to poor posture, and herniated disks to age-related degeneration. We recommend speaking with a trusted health care provider to determine the cause of your back pain and treat it accordingly.
Sleeping on the back is ideal for relieving lower back pain. This position keeps the spine neutral and alleviates pressure. Side sleeping is acceptable, too. Stomach sleeping isn’t recommended and should be avoided—especially if you are experiencing back pain—because sleeping this way strains the spine.
Yes, dehydration can be related to back pain in some individuals. This is because the spinal discs between the vertebrate lose water due to dehydration and can collapse as a result. When this happens, it puts a lot of pressure on the nerves along the spine, leading to pain.
Drinking water throughout the day can help combat dehydration and maintain the proper functioning of the entire body.
For most people, taking over-the-counter pain relievers, performing gentle stretches, and/or using hot and cold compresses is sufficient to lessen pain and allow the back to heal. However, there are more severe cases of extreme pain that require professional medical help.
If your back pain is persistent and lasts for more than two weeks, you may want to consider speaking with a physician. If back pain happens following a fall, it is vital to see a doctor right away to ensure you haven’t sustained any serious injuries.
Many people struggle with back pain at some point but are able to get back to a life uninterrupted by pain with time and rest.
To prevent discomfort and stiffness, be sure to practice good posture, sleep on a supportive mattress, and stick to a regular exercise routine. When pain strikes, there are several steps you can take to care for yourself; try applying hot and cold compresses directly on the area, taking pain medications as needed, and stretching gently.
If your back pain is severe or lasting for several weeks, it may be time to visit your doctor for a physical. Together, you can pinpoint the cause of the pain, determine how to best treat it, and create a plan to manage the symptoms.
This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical professional.