What causes back pain? And what treatments can help? - George Pan, MD | UCLA Pain Center
Causes of Back Pain
The common symptoms of back pain can be related to an injury, an underlying problem, or lifestyle issues.
By Jane Parry
Medically Reviewed by Cynthia Haines, MD
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The typical image that often springs to mind when one thinks about back pain is of a person lifting a heavy object and then wincing in agony. It's true that trauma caused by heavy lifting, injury, or accident can all lead to back pain, but there are also many underlying problems and health conditions that can cause pain as well.
Typical Causes of Back Pain
The kind of back pain experienced by most people typically falls into one of the following areas:
- Mechanical back pain.Amechanicalcause of back pain means that the problem is in the mechanics of the back: the bones, ligaments, disks, joints, nerves, or meninges (the outer membranes that surround the spinal cord). This is the most common type of back pain.
- Sprains or strains.A type of mechanical back injury, sprained/strained muscles or tendons (tough, fibrous tissue that connects muscle and bone) account for 85 percent of lower back pain cases in the U.S.
- Sciatica.The symptoms of sciatica are distinctive: Sharp, shooting pains originating in the back that travels down through the buttocks into the legs. Sciatica usually affects only one side of the body.
Underlying Conditions That May Cause Back Pain
While a sudden jolt or other form of stress to the back can result in pain, there may be an underlying cause that weakens your back, making it more vulnerable to trauma.
Often, however, there is no single explanation for back pain. According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, common causes of back pain include:
- Aging of the spine, ligaments, and discs.As your spine ages, the discs can protrude or even collapse, which can cause pain and can also put pressure on the nerves that run through the spine. According to Andrew Sherman, MD, head of medical rehabilitation at the Spine Institute at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, spinal problems are the most common reason why middle-aged people develop pain and even disability.
- Arthritis.The lower back is one of the areas most commonly affected by arthritis, which can lead to spinal stenosis, or a narrowing of the space around the spinal cord.
- A poorly aligned spine.Some people have back pain because their spine curves in an exaggerated or irregular way, or even curves to the side, a condition known as scoliosis.
- Osteoporosis.If your bones are weak and brittle from osteoporosis, a condition in which the bones become fragile and brittle due to loss of minerals, the vertebrae of the spine are more vulnerable to fractures.
- Being overweight or obese.Excess weight can put a constant strain on your back, resulting in pain.
Back Pain: Chronic or Acute?
When your back pain comes on fast and strong, this is known to doctors as acute back pain. This is most commonly caused by an injury or by an event that jars the structure of the back.
While most acute back pain symptoms typically begin to improve after a few days, for some people the pain continues beyond the initial phase and becomes chronic.
Other Conditions That Can Lead to Back Pain
There are also other conditions that have nothing to do with the back but can still cause lower back pain, including bladder infections, kidney stones and other kidney diseases, ovarian cysts and endometriosis, and twisted testicles.
In rare cases, back pain can be caused by more serious ailments. If a tumor or infection is present in the spine, it can cause the symptom of back pain. Usually, you would also have other symptoms, such as weight loss with cancer or a fever with infection.
Also linked to back pain is cauda equina syndrome, a serious neurologic condition that results from acute loss of function of the bundle of nerve roots of the spinal canal, known as the cauda equina. It causes weakness in the legs, numbness in the groin area, and loss of bladder or bowel control.
Most back pain cases aren't due to a serious medical issue. But if your aching back lasts more than a few days, seeing your doctor is the best way to get relief.
Video: Common Causes of Back Pain
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