Common Causes of Back Pain

What Is Causing Your Lower Back Pain?

Senior Man Suffering From Backache Working In Vegetable Garden

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If you suffer from back pain, you are far from being alone. Four out of five adults experience the symptoms of low back pain at least once in their lifetime. Why? Because the back is a complex structure made up of 33 vertebrae, over 30 muscles, numerous ligaments, multiple joints, and intervertebral discs. These structures must all function together to help you move and to provide a stable foundation for your limbs. As you can see, there are many structures that can cause discomfort if injured or affected.

What Causes Back Pain?

Back pain can seem mysterious. It often comes on for no apparent reason and without warning. But when it does strike, it can make performing even the simplest tasks almost impossible. Common causes of low back pain may include:

  • Muscle strains: One common cause of back pain is muscular strains. This happens when an unexpected force, twist, or pull is applied to one or several of the muscles in the back. As a result, overstretching can occur in the muscle and can cause pain felt in the back.
  • Bulging or herniated spinal discs: Herniated discs can result in back pain. Most disc herniations are associated with the natural process of aging, however, they can also occur due to an injury such as sudden heavy loading of the back (as occurs with improper lifting). In some cases a disc herniation can compress the spinal nerves where they exit the spinal column, resulting in radicular type of back pain in which pain is felt at the site of injury and along the course of the affected nerve. Sciatica, for example, is a type of radicular pain.
  • Spinal stenosis: Spinal stenosis is another cause of back pain. It occurs more commonly in people over 50 years old. The term refers to a narrowing of the spinal canal that can put pressure on the nerves. Spinal stenosis has many causes including thickened ligaments along the spinal canal or bony spurs that can occur from arthritic changes. This condition can result in back pain that is worse with extended periods of weight-bearing or walking. In severe cases, surgery is sometimes necessary to correct this disorder.
  • Arthritis: Osteoarthritis can affect any joint, including the joints of the spine. It is found more commonly in people over 50 years of age and is related to findings such as spinal stenosis. With age, cartilage starts to degenerate in the discs between our vertebrae and in the joints of our spine. This can result in increased risk for inflammation, swelling, and stiffness that in turn cause back pain. As arthritis progresses bones can sometimes develop spurs and ligaments can become thickened, both of which have been associated with spinal stenosis as described above.
  • Bone weakening disease: Osteoporosis can be associated with back pain in some cases and is common in women. It is a disease characterized by progressive loss of bone density. This results in thinning of bone tissue making one more susceptible to fractures, or broken bones. The bones of the spine can be affected by this disorder, leading to small areas that can collapse with minor injury and can result in painful vertebral compression fractures.
  • Fibromyalgia: A condition called fibromyalgia is a common cause of multiple sites of pain that can include the back. It is a condition characterized by widespread soft tissue pain, fatigue, sleep disturbance, and the presence of evenly distributed areas of tenderness. A history of at least three months of widespread pain and tenderness in eleven or more of the eighteen designated tender point sites is required in diagnosing this disorder.

So what can cause all of these problems? Sometimes, back pain seems to come on for no apparent reason. When this happens, even minor changes that repetitive strain on your back such as poor sitting posture can be the culprit. Also, frequent bending or heavy lifting can place excessive stress on your spine, leading to pain.

A Word From Verywell

If you have back pain, you should get it checked out by a healthcare professional. See your healthcare provider to obtain a diagnosis and create a plan, and check in with your physical therapist to learn how to sit with correct posture and to treat your back pain or sciatica. Severe symptoms or unusual symptoms associated with back pain such as fevers, numbness or weakness, or loss of bladder control require an urgent visit to your healthcare provider.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. TRIA Orthopedics. Comprehensive spine care for neck and back conditions.

  2. American Association of Neurological Surgeons. Herniated disc.

  3. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Lumbar spinal stenosis.

  4. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Degenerative disc disease.

  5. American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. Osteoporosis and spinal fractures.

  6. Chakrabarty S, Zoorob R. FibromyalgiaAm Fam Physician. 2007;76(2):247-254.

Additional Reading

By Laura Inverarity, DO
 Laura Inverarity, PT, DO, is a current board-certified anesthesiologist and former physical therapist.