Back pain is characterized by dull or sharp pains in the back, muscle stiffness, and an inability to stand up straight without difficulty. The issue is one of the most common medical conditions in America, withexperiencing the issue at some point.
There are three durations to specify back pain:
- Acute: Pain lasting from several days to 4 weeks. Acute symptoms appear suddenly and are severe, however, the pain typically subsides as the body heals.
- Subacute: Pain lasting longer than 4 weeks, but less than 3 months. This categorization is when the pain is neither chronic nor acute.
- Chronic: Pain lasting for longer than 3 months. With chronic pain, discomfort continues despite a healed injury due to active pain signals in your nervous system.
In this article, we take a look at potential causes and treatment for your back pain, risk factors for back pain and injury, and how to prevent future pain.
Causes of Back Pain
Back pain can be caused by congenital issues, such as scoliosis; or to injuries such as those caused by physical stress. Other cases of back pain may develop later in life due to age-related diseases and conditions such as arthritis.
Strains or Sprains
Muscle strains and sprains are injuries to the muscle, tendons, or ligaments. The injury can happen suddenly or develop over time from repetitive motion. Common causes of muscle strains and sprains include sleeping in an odd position, lifting heavy objects improperly, sports injuries, and vehicular accidents. Being in a poor physical condition also makes you more prone to strains and sprains.
While such injuries do not typically lead to chronic pain, the acute pain in your muscles can be severe.
Muscle spasms are involuntary and painful contractions of the muscles, often due to injuries to the back and spine. They can be caused when exerting a lot of force or energy, such as when weightlifting, moving heavy objects, or playing sports. Typically, these are acute sensations.
Vehicular accidents, falling, and other blunt forces to your body are all examples of physical trauma and lead to swelling or bruising of the spine and back. The damage can range from mild to severe, though mild injuries are typically acute and generally resolve on their own. More severe trauma can result in fractures to the spine or other injuries that may take more time to heal, and in some cases may lead to chronic pain.
Poor posture is a common cause of back pain. Hunching over your desk at school or work, sleeping awkwardly or on a bad mattress, or driving for long periods of time all affect your posture and can strain your back.
Herniated or Ruptured Discs
Intervertebral discs are the cushions between your spine. When they are compressed (known as a herniated or ruptured disc) they may bulge and press down on your nerve and cause back and general upper body pain.
Degenerative disc disease results in ruptured discs, as well. When you’re born, your intervertebral discs are healthy and full of fluid. With age, the discs lose fluid and begin wearing down. With less fluid, the discs cannot function properly and may develop tears, leading to herniation and pain.
Sciatica is triggered by a bulging or herniated disc pressing on the sciatic nerve, causing sharp and shooting pains down one leg. The condition usually only affects one side of the body and while severe, can be resolved within several weeks with proper care.
Osteoarthritis, stenosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and arthritis in the spine all contribute to back pain. Arthritis can lead to spinal stenosis, a compressing of the spinal canal and nerve roots. This leads to cramping, weakness, and back pain.
Osteoporosis causes your bones to become brittle, weak, and porous, leaving you vulnerable to compression fractures in your spine, hips, and wrists. It most commonly occurs to older adults as bone loss commonly occurs later in life.
See also our guide to sleeping with osteoporosis.
Osteomyelitis is a bacterial or fungal infection of the bone, generally in the spine, legs, or arms. While the condition is rare, it may be deadly if left untreated.
Scoliosis is a condition causing an unnatural curve to the spine. It typically happens to children during puberty, though the condition worsens with age. Scoliosis can lead to having uneven shoulders or hips, deformities, and back pain.
Spinal tumors are a potential cause of back pain. Many cancers start in different parts of the body, including the breast, kidney, and lungs, before traveling to the spine during later stages of disease; spinal cord cancer is relatively uncommon.
Back Pain Treatment
Based on the cause of your pain, home treatments can help mild issues. In more serious cases, a doctor will offer various treatment options, such as referral to physical therapy or prescription medication.
Hot or Cold Therapy
Using ice packs or heat pads is an easy way to relieve pain and reduce inflammation. 15 to 20-minute sessions of either hot or cold therapy on the pain source should do the trick. Take two-hour breaks between treatments. You can try alternating between hot and cold treatments or only use one depending on how your body responds.
Back braces can be used sparingly to ease back pain, but only per your doctor’s recommendation. When lifting heavy objects, in particular, wearing a back brace can align your spine, provide added support, and possibly relieve and prevent back pain or injury.
While rest may seem like the most important part of relieving pain, it may actually worsen it. It’s best to limit bed rest to no more than one or two days.
Remaining physically active helps you heal by keeping your joints and muscles loose and mobile. However, reduce any overaggressive or strenuous activities such as high-intensity interval training or weight lifting. Instead, try gentle exercises such as stretching and walking to ease stiffness and prevent any muscle loss.
Your doctor may refer you to see a physical therapist for treatment. There, your physical therapist will evaluate your current situation before offering a treatment plan. They’ll teach you exercises and stretches to strengthen your back and reduce your pain. They also demonstrate how to self-manage your condition to prevent any pain from recurring.
Massage therapy is a noninvasive procedure to help reduce muscle spasms, knots, and tension by increasing the blood flow to your back. Massage therapists use a variety of different methods to best relieve your pain, though you can try self-massaging at home as well, targeting the pain using your hands or items such as a foam roller or massage ball.
As recommended by your doctor, over-the-counter (OTC) pain relief medication or anti-inflammatory drugs can help relieve your pain. They are best for handling mild or acute back pain, though can relieve chronic pain temporarily as well. In addition, your doctor may suggest using OTC topical ointments, such as numbing gels, to improve your condition.
In some situations, your doctor may prescribe you muscle relaxers or antidepressants, especially for chronic pain.
If other treatments are not improving your pain, your doctor may inject cortisone, a strong anti-inflammatory, and numbing agent, into your spine. However, this pain relief is only temporary, lasting between one to two months.
While surgery is an uncommon treatment for back pain, it can be the final step for chronic and severe conditions, especially if your body has not responded to other, nonsurgical treatments. Certain surgeries are meant to treat specific conditions, such as a spinal fusion to treat scoliosis.
Potential Risk Factors
Although back pain can happen to anybody, there are several factors that put individuals at a higher risk of developing it, including:
- Pregnancy: When pregnant, the uterus commonly compresses the sciatic nerve, causing sciatica. However, any back pain occurring during pregnancy typically goes away completely upon giving birth.
- Activity Level: If you are incredibly sedentary, your body becomes weak, especially your back and abdominal muscles. Some individuals may be sedentary during the week only to aggressively exercise over the weekend. This, however, puts you at a high risk of back injuries. It’s best to maintain a moderate and consistent activity level throughout the week.
- Age: Lower back pain, in particular, becomes more common as you age. It typically arises between the ages of 30 and 50, as the intervertebral discs in your back lose fluid and cushion your spine less. In addition, your body becomes generally weaker as you grow older and your back may have insufficient support. Older adults are also susceptible to arthritis which may contribute to back pain. Osteoporosis or loss of bone mass which are common later in life may also result in spine compression or fracture, leading to back pain.
- Weight: Being significantly overweight, especially in your abdomen, puts extra stress on your joints and back, leading to back pain.
- Physical Work: If your profession requires heavy lifting, pulling, or pushing, the constant exertion of your muscles may lead to injury or strain. If you lift large objects improperly, your back and spine are at risk.
Tips For Preventing Back Pain
While some pain requires medical treatment to resolve, there are still ways you can prevent hurting your back and spine, such as having good posture, eating and sleeping well.
Engage in Regular Exercise
Regular exercise strengthens your back and abdomen, preventing pain, increasing mobility, and easing existing issues you may have. Having a strong core can relieve pressure from your back and improve your spinal alignment. Also, physical activity helps control your body weight and reduces any added strain on your back.
The average adult should exercise for 150 minutes every week. When exercising, always be sure to maintain proper form and don’t overexert your muscles, as this can lead to injury or muscle strains.
Practice Good Posture
If you spend lots of time in a seated position, such as at work or school, having good posture can greatly relieve and prevent back pain. Be sure to sit up straight, switch your position often, and, if you’ve been seated for an extended period of time, get up and walk around to stretch your muscles.
When seated, keep your feet flat on the floor and use a supportive chair. You may try placing a pillow between your lower back and the chair to help maintain your spine’s natural curve. Also, remove belongings, such as phone or wallet, from your back pockets while seated as sitting on items puts pressure on your lower back.
While standing, try not to lean onto one foot. Instead, stand straight and balance your weight between both feet.
Upgrade to a Better Mattress
Apart from practicing good posture during your waking hours, you should look for a mattress that supports you correctly while you sleep. If you have a lumpy or unsupportive mattress, you’ll sleep in uncomfortable and unhealthy positions, undoing any good you do for yourself during the day. The best mattresses contain pressure-relieving and supportive materials to maintain alignment and ease pain points.
Avoid Heavy Lifting
If you can, avoid lifting heavy objects as much as possible. In case you have to carry something heavy, keep your back straight and your core tight. Rather than lifting with your arms and back, use your legs to carry the brunt of the weight as it’s important not to curve or twist your back in any way when lifting. It’s also best to have a friend help you lift heavy objects to better distribute the weight.
Follow a Healthy Diet
Having a well-balanced diet and staying properly hydrated can improve and prevent countless health conditions. When trying to improve back pain, increase your vitamin D, phosphorus, and calcium intake, as these all help strengthen bones and prevent conditions such as osteoporosis. Eating well also helps control your weight, lessening the pressure on your back and spine.
Get Adequate Sleep
Studies have shown that, while pain at night may interfere with sleep, the reverse is also true. It can be difficult to sleep with lower back pain, but it’s important to do what you can to get a full night’s rest.
According to Dr. Katie Stone, “Poor sleep may worsen pain symptoms, in part by increasing the body’s sensitivity to pain. Individuals with chronic insomnia and pain may improve pain symptoms by receiving treatment for sleep problems.”
How should I sleep to relieve lower back pain?
If you struggle with back pain, there are several ways you can sleep to potentially relieve it. Try sleeping on your back with a pillow under your knees or on your side with a pillow between your knees. You may also try sleeping at an incline, either with an adjustable base or a wedge pillow.
Always be sure to use an adequate pillow and mattress so you receive the proper support and keep your spine neutral. Also be sure to allow sufficient time to get adequate sleep, and speak with your doctor if you are experiencing problems with sleep such as insomnia, excessive snoring, or other issues.
How do I know if my back pain is serious?
It’s uncommon for back pain to be life-threatening. Back pain is most often a mild issue or caused by a condition you are likely already aware of, such as strain or injury, arthritis, or scoliosis. Regardless, if you are experiencing any of the following symptoms, seek immediate medical attention:
- Progressive weakness or numbness in the legs
- Unexpected weight loss
- You are elderly
- Loss of bowel or bladder control
- Worsening pain despite rest
- Unable to balance
Can drinking more water help back pain?
Drinking more water may improve your back pain. The discs between the vertebrae in your spine are filled with fluid. Normally, they constantly rehydrate on their own. However, if you are not drinking enough water or are dehydrated, these discs may shrink and lead to a herniated disc. When you are well-hydrated, you can reduce your risk of a slipped or herniated disc in your spine.
Why does my back hurt only when I lay down?
Sometimes, your back pain may only hurt upon lying down due to a bad mattress and pillows or an uncomfortable sleeping position. Finding a new sleeping position or switching out your mattress and pillows can be the solution. However, if changing your sleep position and environment does not improve your symptoms, this may be a sign of a more serious condition.
Nocturnal back pain is a type of pain in which your issues do not improve upon lying down. In some instances, your back pain may be triggered by lying down. Similar to general back pain, the treatment varies based on the diagnosis. Muscle sprains, disc degeneration, and scoliosis are all potential causes of nocturnal back pain. Speak to your doctor for advice and treatment options.
Can back pain go away by itself?
Back pain may go away on its own depending on what’s causing it. Mild pain, caused by poor posture or muscle strains, typically goes away within a few weeks.
Chronic pain or pain caused by specific health conditions will need professional treatment. Leaving chronic back issues or pain untreated may lead to permanent nerve irritation and damage, so be sure to speak with your doctor if your pain is severe or lasts longer than 12 weeks.
Although back pain is common, you don’t have to suffer in silence—you can find relief. Never ignore your symptoms as they may worsen without proper care. Eating well, remaining physically active, getting adequate sleep, and having good posture may help to prevent future pain. In any case, always speak with your doctor for assistance on diagnosing and treating your pain.