Back pain: Common and uncommon causes

Have you ever woken up with pain in your lower back and you have no idea why? If so, you’re not alone. Research shows that about 80% of Americans will experience back pain at some point in their life, and lower back pain is a particularly pervasive complaint. Medical professionals commonly attribute the prevalence of lower back pain to evolution, noting that back pain can be attributed to the way we bear our weight while standing and walking on two legs. Lower back pain is often aggravated by the way we move, lift, and bend, and also by the amount of time we spend sitting and sleeping. The lumbar spine, which is the second-lowest segment of the spine, bears significant compression and flexion in supporting the mechanics of human movement, and it is easy for any small component of the spine to become misaligned or maladjusted. This can lead to numbness, discomfort, pain, or even immobility. Unfortunately, lower back pain can also be a symptom of a larger medical issue, and some lower back pain seems to appear and disappear with no rhyme or reason. It is important to consult a medical practitioner to rule out serious complications of lower back pain, though some pain can be readily attributed to one of a few common causes.

Common triggers for lower back pain

Living a sedentary lifestyle can contribute to many health concerns, including lower back pain. If your back pain diminishes when you stretch your legs or hips, or when you loosen your muscles through walking or other low-impact exercise, it is likely that your back pain is a result of your sedentary lifestyle. If you sit in the same position for work all day, try getting up to take periodic breaks to stretch out your hips and legs, and walk as much as you can throughout the day to loosen and relax the muscles around the spine.

Poor posture is also often a culprit when looking for the causes of lower back pain. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you slouch while standing or sitting; if you tuck one leg under you, or habitually jut one leg to the side, this repeated movement will contribute to pressure and misalignment in the spine and can lead to lower back pain or discomfort if sustained for a regular period of time. These habits can be difficult to break, but learning to do so can offer relief for pain that is due to postural issues.

If your back has lost muscle tone and strength, due to a lack of exercise, you may find yourself more susceptible to sudden strain of the muscles or ligaments while lifting something heavy or moving in a sudden or aggressive way. Conversely, lower back pain may also result from muscle fatigue, which may arise because of exercise or repetitive movement. Try to learn and adhere to proper form when lifting, moving, exercising, or other repetitive motions, to alleviate the possibility of pain in the lumbar spine.

Medical triggers for lower back pain

Sometimes, pain in the lower back arises because of injury or a medical condition. In between each of our vertebrae are cushioning discs that support the weight of the vertebrae. Over time, these discs can stiffen, bulge, or rupture, due to trauma, causing shooting pain down the legs and other painful symptoms in the lumbar spine. Disc abnormalities, like bulging or herniation, are relatively common and don’t necessarily cause pain, but when they do, medical treatment can provide relief.

Scoliosis, or curvature of the spine, can also lead to pain or discomfort in the lower back, as can degenerative bone and joint issues like osteoporosis and osteoarthritis. Back pain may also be a symptom of autoimmune disorders like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, though these medical conditions are rare. Another rare cause of lower back pain is cancer, which may metastasize and form tumors in the organs in the lower back area.

What to do about your back pain

If you’re experiencing pain in your lower back, there’s a good chance it will resolve on its own within a relatively short amount of time. Rest, heat or ice, and anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen may be sufficient methods to bring relief. Try to stay as active as you can, to keep the muscles of the lower back loose and flexible, but avoid any movements that aggravate the pain. You may also want to look into office ergonomics, to ensure that your workspace is arranged in a beneficial way for your spinal health and comfort.

If your back pain hasn’t resolved within 6 weeks, schedule an appointment with your general practitioner. You may be referred to a physical therapist, an orthopedist, or even a massage therapist, depending on the nature and cause of your pain. In many cases, it’s perfectly fine to wait to see if your back pain resolves; there are some situations, however, where you should seek prompt medical care. If you back pain is the result of an accident or other trauma; if you’re experiencing neurological symptoms like numbness or weakness in the legs or loss of sensation in the groin area; if you have a history of cancer; if you are constipated or cannot hold your urine or stool; or if you have a fever associated with your lower back pain, be sure to see your general practitioner as soon as you can.