Back pain is a very common problem and will affect many of us at some point during our lives. Fortunately, lower back pain usually gets better on its own. However, for some it may become an annoying recurring condition.
In this article, we look at what causes back pain and simple lifestyle changes you can try to help prevent it from happening.
What does back pain feel like?
Pain in the lower back (lumbago) is pretty common, although it can be felt anywhere along the spine, from the neck down to the hips. Back pain can range from a muscle aching to a shooting, burning, tingling or stabbing sensation. The pain may also radiate down your leg or worsen with bending, twisting, lifting, standing or walking.
What causes back pain?
The good news is that in most cases, back pain isn’t a serious problem, and the exact cause of the pain is not clear. This is called ‘nonspecific’ lower back pain. It could also be caused by a simple strain to a muscle or ligament. This is known as ‘mechanical’ back pain.
Nonspecific and mechanical back pain usually have the same characteristics:
- It tends to get better or worse depending on your position – for example, it may feel better when sitting or lying down
- It often feels worse when moving
- It can develop suddenly or gradually
- It is sometimes the result of poor posture or lifting something awkwardly, but often happens for no apparent reason
- It may be caused by a minor injury such as sprain (pulled ligament) or strain (pulled muscle)
- It will usually start to get better within a few weeks
Occasionally, medical conditions can cause back pain, such as:
- A slipped disc (a disc of cartilage in the spine pressing on a nerve) – this can cause back pain and numbness, tingling and weakness in other parts of the body
- Sciatica (irritation of the nerve that runs from the lower back to the feet) – this can cause pain, numbness, tingling and weakness in the lower back, buttocks, legs and feet
- Ankylosing spondylitis (swelling of the joints in the spine) – this causes pain and stiffness that's usually worse in the morning and improves with movement
- Spondylolisthesis (a bone in the spine slipping out of position) – this can cause lower back pain and stiffness, as well as numbness and a tingling sensation
- Arthritis – there are more than 100 types of arthritis, many of which can cause lower back pain
- Osteoporosis – when bones lose mass faster than it can be replaced, making them brittle. They can even fracture with little or no warning. These fractures are especially common in the spine, where they're called vertebral compression fractures. Both men and women lose bone mass as they age, but postmenopausal women lose it much faster and so are more at risk for osteoporosis.
- Spinal tumours – when cells divide and multiply unchecked, the result is a tumour. Both benign and malignant tumours can cause lower back pain.
How long does lower back pain last?
Lower back pain can be placed into three categories - acute, subacute or chronic. Acute episodes of lower back pain usually last from a few days to 4 weeks and subacute lower back pain lasts between 4 to 12 weeks. However, according to the National Institutes of Health, about 20 percent of people with acute back pain go on to develop chronic back pain—defined as pain that lasts 12 weeks or longer.
Back pain risk factors
Anyone can develop back pain, even children. There are, however, some factors that might put you at greater risk of developing back pain:
- Age: Back pain is more common as you get older, starting around age 30 - 40 years old
- Lack of exercise: Weak, unused muscles in your back and abdomen might lead to back pain
- Excess body weight: Being overweight can ptt extra stress on your back
- Diseases: Some types of arthritis and cancer can contribute to back pain
- Improper lifting: Using your back instead of your legs when lifting heavy objects can cause back pain
- Mental health conditions: People prone to depression and anxiety have a greater risk of back pain
- Smoking: Smokers have increased rates of back pain. This may occur because smoking can decrease blood flow to the spine and increase the risk of osteoporosis. Smoking also prompts more coughing, which can lead to a herniated disk.
How can you prevent back pain?
- Stand well: Good posture can reduce the stress on back muscles. Try not to slouch, and try to maintain a neutral pelvic position.
- Sit well: Choose a seat with good lower back support and armrests. Try placing a cushion or rolled towel in the small of your back so it can maintain its normal curve.
- Lift well: Avoid heavy lifting, if possible, but if you must lift something heavy, find a lifting partner. Keep your back straight and bend only at the knees.
Sources: NHS, Versus Arthritis, Mayo Clinic, Spine Universe