Causes of Back Pain
Back pain is difficult to diagnose and treat. There are a variety of causes of back pain, and a wide range of possible back pain treatments that may or may not work for the same condition. Before you start taking painkillers or agree to surgery, it’s important to determine what is causing your pain so you can assess the proper treatment. If you find that your back pain persists after a couple of weeks, don’t hesitate to call your doctor so he can help with a treatment plan.
Common Causes of Back Pain
- Poor Posture: Whether sitting, walking, or running, slouching and slumping strains the delicate bones and muscles in your back and can lead to permanent, recurring pain.
- Age and Genetics: Unfortunately, time takes its toll on the body. Adults in their 30s, 40s and 50s are at a higher risk than younger adults for back pain because of changes occurring in the body (including loss of bone strength and muscle tone). Disc-related pain is also common for this age group. Seniors are more likely to experience back pain due to osteoarthritis, spinal stenosis and other degenerative disorders.
- Office and Home Ergonomics: Bad chairs, improper monitor height and soft couches can contribute to back pain in the office and at home.
- Office: The wrong chair, improper desk setup (including poor monitor height) and lack of breaks can put us all at risk for a number of health-related issues—from strained eyes, headaches and back aches to carpal tunnel syndrome, stress, musculoskeletal problems and more.
- Home: Like office setup, soft couches, bad mattresses and chairs can all lead to back pain in the home. The amount of time we spend bending down to look at our devices—phones, tablets or the TV—can also contribute to neck, shoulder and back pain.
- Lack of Exercise: Lack of exercise and stretching and a weak core can add to pain and stiffness in the back. Lack of exercise can also be tied to excess weight which can significantly impact back pain (see below).
- Excess Weight: The heavier you are, the harder your body works to keep itself balanced. Even a few extra pounds can make your hips tilt forward and misalign your spine, causing strain on your lower back.
- Clothing and Bags: Too tight of clothing, high heels and heavy bags can all cause back pain for one reason or another. Here’s a few things to be aware of when you get dressed in the morning:
- High Heels: High heels push the body’s center of mass forward, taking the hips and spine out of alignment and placing additional strain on the back, knees, ankles and feet.
- Unsupportive Bra: Ill-fitting bras can affect the curve of the spine and lead to upper back problems. Research shows that most women wear the wrong size bra, leading to extensive hunching and straining as compensation for discomfort.
- Heavy Bags: Lugging a heavy backpack, bag or purse around by one strap can cause the disproportionate shift of weight to one side, leading to neck and muscle spasms, as well as low-back pain.
- Sitting on Your Wallet: Sitting on your wallet can cause your pelvis to twist, leading to misalignment of the spine and potential sciatic issues.
- Worn out Shoes: Stilettos are hard on your back and flip flops don’t provide correct support but even “good” shoes that have worn out soles could change your posture and the way you walk, causing back pain.
- Bedtime Setup: Back pain is just as likely to occur during sleep as it is while we are awake. Here are a few things to be mindful of as you settle in for the night:
- Mattress: A mattress that dips in certain areas will bend your spine abnormally. If you find yourself sinking into your mattress when you lie down, your mattress is likely lacking proper support. The result: poor sleeping posture, muscle strain and misalignment of the spine—or, in other words—back pain.
- Pillow Height: If the height of your pillow is too high or too low, your neck can bend abnormally, causing muscle strain on the back of the neck and shoulders.
- Sleeping on Your Stomach: Sleeping on your stomach does not maintain the proper curve in the spine or the neck throughout the night. It also puts pressure on the joints and muscles.
- Stress: Under stress (even good stress!), back muscles tend to tense up and may even spasm. Stress also causes an increased production of cortisol leading to inflammation and achiness. To top it off, those who are stressed often will likely have a more difficult time managing their pain, increasing back pain symptoms.
- Impact from Walking and Running: As your heel strikes the ground, shock waves travel up the legs to the lumbar region of the back, causing poor alignment and irritated back muscles.
- Pregnancy: An increase in hormones, weight gain and the shift in the center of the body’s gravity can all work together to cause discomfort and back pain during pregnancy.
Specific Medical Causes
- Degenerative Discs: As we age, the cushioned, shock-absorbing discs between each vertebrae can wear down, causing back pain.
- Herniated Disc or Sciatica: A herniated or “slipped” disc in the spine places pressure on nerves in the spinal column. Known as sciatica, this intense pressure on the nerves can cause pain from the buttocks down the length of the leg.
- Scoliosis: This condition is caused by an abnormal curvature in the spine, often making the back appear in a “C” or an “S” shape.
- Spinal Stenosis: Often as a result of bone spurs, this condition narrows the canal within each vertebrae that houses the delicate nerves of the spinal column, causing pinching and nerve pressure.
Tips for Consulting Your Doctor
Keep a Pain Journal. Pain management experts recommend keeping a pain journal to help doctors figure out the source of your pain and figure out how to help you manage that pain. Make a habit of writing in your journal a few times a day and describe the type of pain you are having on a scale 1-10. Write about activities that might have spurred pain, the time of day you experienced pain and use descriptive words like tingling, burning or aching.
Go Prepared With a List of Questions. When you visit your doctor, come up with a few questions to help you better understand the cause of your back pain and the best treatment plan for you.
Consider asking the following questions:
- Can you tell me what is causing the pain?
- How long will my pain last?
- How do you recommend I treat the pain?
Do you have any recommendations for physical therapists, chiropractors or other resources to help me treat my pain?