Back Pain: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment and Prevention 

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Back pain disrupts the daily lives of millions in the U.S. You can get back pain from many activities and conditions, including falling, lifting heavy objects, or having certain medical disorders. While you can often manage back pain on your own, it can also be serious and require treatments like medications, physical therapy, or surgery. If you’re living with back pain now or want to know how to prevent it in the future, this article is for you.

About the Back

The back is made of the spinal cord, vertebral bones, muscles, overlying tissues, and other structures. The spinal cord is a group of nerves that goes down the inside of your backbone and helps you move and feel. The vertebral bones around your spinal cord protect it. Muscles along the vertebral bones help you to stretch and bend your back. If you injure any of these or other structures of the back, you may get back pain.

Causes of Back Pain

There are many causes of back pain. These causes include:

  • A muscle injury from physical exertion
  • Being born with an abnormal curvature of the spine
  • Physical stresses from pregnancy
  • Vertebral bones that are weakened by low bone density (osteoporosis) and break 
  • Medical conditions such as fibromyalgia, which causes widespread muscle pain
  • Infections of the spine, which can happen if bacteria or viruses travel there from your blood or a cut in your back
  • Tumors of the spine, which you can get from cancer starting there or if you have cancer that spreads to the 
  • Cauda equina syndrome, a condition where you injure this bundle of nerves at the bottom of the spine

Signs and Symptoms of Back Pain

Symptoms of back pain will vary from person to person, depending on what causes the pain and which part of the back is affected. Symptoms you might commonly experience with back pain include:

  • Generalized aching in the back area
  • Sharp pain after stressing the back with lifting, twisting, bending, stretching, or falling
  • Morning stiffness
  • Pain that moves down your legs
  • Worsened pain with lifting, bending, sitting, or standing

You should make an appointment with your doctor if your back pain:

  • Persists for more than two weeks
  • Does not improve with rest
  • Is getting progressively worse
  • Spreads down your legs below your knees
  • Leads to numbness or tingling in your legs
  • Is associated with unintentional weight loss that cannot be explained with lifestyle changes (possibly related to an infection or tumor)

Go to the doctor immediately if your back pain:

  • Causes issues with using the bathroom
  • Is associated with a fever
  • Occurs after an injury, like a fall

Risk factors

Several physical stressors are strong risk factors for back pain, including lifting heavy loads, twisting, bending, and falling. You can experience these at home, at work, or during leisure activities.

Other risk factors for back pain include:

  • Age: As you get older, your risk for back pain increases, starting at about age 30 or 40.
  • Inactivity: Not using your back muscles weakens them, leading to back pain.
  • Obesity: Having added weight on your body can place more pressure on your spine, which can cause back pain.
  • Smoking: Smoking can decrease blood flow to your spine and increase the risk of osteoporosis. This makes you more susceptible to fractured vertebrae and back pain. Smoking also causes repeated coughing. This pressure can cause a disc–the tissue cushion between vertebrae–to push against your spinal cord.
  • Stress and anxiety: When you’re extremely stressed or living with anxiety, you may experience increased tension in your back. Depression may also lead to feelings of back pain and stiffness.

Diagnostic Tests for Back Pain

To figure out what’s causing your back pain, your doctor will ask questions about the pain and perform a physical exam to assess your ability to move. They may also perform some of the following tests:

  • X-rays: X-rays allow your doctor to see if you have any broken bones contributing to your back pain.
  • MRIs and CT scans: These scans let your doctor see any soft tissue damage to your back.
  • Blood tests: Your doctor may check your blood for infections that may be causing your back pain.
  • Bone scans: Bone scans can let your doctor see if you have any bone tumors or fractures from osteoporosis.
  • Nerve tests: These tests show if any of the nerves in your back are being pinched.

Treatments for Back Pain

Your doctor may recommend many options for your back pain treatment, including:

  • Medications: Over-the-counter or prescription pain medications or muscle relaxants can help you manage back pain in the short term.
  • Physical therapy: If your back pain is chronic, you may need to visit a physical therapist, who can teach you exercises that strengthen your back muscles.
  • Cortisone: An injection of a steroid like cortisone can reduce inflammation and pain.
  • Surgery: If your pain is related to a physical issue like a disc pressing against your spine, surgery may relieve your back pain.

Other Treatment Options

There are treatments you can do on your own to give you back pain relief:

  • Acupuncture: Acupuncture is a technique where an acupuncture specialist inserts very thin needles into specific areas of your skin. Scientific evidence suggests acupuncture can help relieve back pain.
  • Chiropractic treatment: A chiropractor can help ease your back pain by adjusting your spine.
  • Massage: Getting a massage can help relieve back pain symptoms by relaxing your back muscles.
  • Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS): TENS uses electricity on the painful areas of your back to relieve back pain. However, medical research hasn’t proven that TENS is effective. 
  • Yoga: Yoga helps you strengthen your muscles, including your back muscles, and improve your posture. Make sure to avoid poses that worsen your back pain.

While changing your mattress or furniture may help with your back pain, there’s no specific product that works for everyone. It’s best to use whatever products you find most comfortable. 

Next Steps

There are ways you can prevent back pain from occurring:

  • Be careful with lifting objects: If your job requires you to lift heavy loads, make sure you follow any guidelines given by your health and safety experts. Use the same safety practices at home: lift with your legs, not your back. Bend at the knees, keep your back straight and only move up and down. Don’t twist yourself or do any jerking movements. If what you’re lifting is too heavy, ask someone to help you.
  • Exercise: Find exercises that build back strength and flexibility. Focus on strengthening your muscles to reduce back injuries and keep your spine straight. 
  • Have good posture: Pay attention to how you sit and stand. Avoid arching your back or slumping your shoulders, which can contribute to back pain. Avoid sitting for long periods if that contributes to pain. 
  • Maintain a healthy weight: Being overweight can hurt your back because it causes increased pressure on your back muscles and spinal cord. Keeping a healthy weight can prevent this.
  • Quit smoking

If you already have back pain, you can sometimes manage the issue by yourself. When your back starts to hurt, whether from work, exercise, or medical conditions, don’t be afraid to take a short break to relax and rest. Listening to your body’s needs is the best way to prevent further injury. If your back pain becomes unmanageable, you should visit a doctor to address it. With proper assessment, your doctor can help you manage your back pain safely and effectively.

Resource Links:

  1. “Back Pain” via Mayo Clinic
  2. “Back Pain” via NIH
  3. “Low Back Pain Fact Sheet” via NIH
  4. “Obesity: Everything You Need to Know About the Condition” via The Health Feed
  5. “Your Complete Guide to Understanding and Coping with Stress” via The Health Feed