Causes and Treatment of Back Pain

Common and Uncommon Causes and Treatment Options

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Back pain is a common condition, but its symptoms can vary depending on the cause. The pain may be described as dull, sharp, throbbing, stabbing, aching, or searing. It can come and go, be constant, or worsen with exercise or prolonged sitting.

As frustrating as back pain can be, the upside is that most cases will resolve or improve within a few weeks with rest. More severe conditions may require ongoing care and treatment, including surgery.

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Verywell / Alexandra Gordon

This article looks at some of the common and uncommon causes of back pain, including how they are diagnosed and treated. It also explains when it is time to see a doctor.

Common Causes

There are many possible causes of back pain. Here are some of the more common:

Strain or Sprain

Strains and sprains are perhaps the most common causes of back pain, especially in the lower back. A strain refers to the tearing of a muscle or tendon (which connects muscles to bones), while a sprain refers to the tearing of a ligament (which connects bones in a joint).

A torn tendon or ligament may be the result of trauma, such as a fall or sports injury, or the overuse of a joint, known as a repetitive stress injury.

The pain can range from mild to severe and is often described as an "all over pain" that moves into the buttocks. The pain tends to worsen with movement and be soothed with rest. Along with pain, muscle stiffness, muscle spasms, and a reduced range of motion are common.

Bulging or Ruptured Disc

Intervertebral discs are located between the bones of the spine and serve as shock-absorbing cushions. Different things can cause the discs to break down over time, including aging, trauma, obesity, repetitive stress, and even smoking. When this happens, a disc can start to protrude outward, which is known as a bulging or slipped disc.

Without treatment, the disc can eventually tear, resulting in a ruptured (herniated) disc. When this happens, the inner part of the disc (called the nucleus pulposus) will push out and compress nearby nerves, triggering nerve pain.

A ruptured disc can cause sharp pain that may move down into the buttocks, groin, and leg. A ruptured disc in the neck can cause pain that moves down an arm. There may also be muscle weakness, numbness, and tingling.

Osteoarthritis

Spine osteoarthritis is a form of arthritis that is caused by the wear and tear of cartilage between the spinal bones. As the cartilage wears away, there may be a dull, aching, or throbbing pain that worsens with movement.

There may also be a popping sensation known as crepitus. Joint stiffness and a reduced range of motion can also occur.

As the disease progresses, the body will start to create bony growths to help stabilize the joint. The resulting bone spurs can compress nearby nerve roots, causing numbness and tingling sensations similar to that of a ruptured disc.

Sciatica

Sciatica refers to the pinching of the sciatic nerve, which branches off the spinal cord in the lower back and supplies the buttock and leg. Sciatica can be caused by a ruptured disc, bone spur, or an injury to the pelvis, buttock, or thigh. Diabetes, pregnancy, and prolonged sitting are also risk factors.

A condition called piriformis syndrome can also cause sciatica when the nearby piriformis muscle goes into spasm.

Sciatica causes shooting, burning, or cramping pain that extends from the lower back into a buttock and sometimes down the leg and into the sole of a foot. Tingling, numbness, and muscle weakness are common.

Spinal Stenosis

As you get older, the spinal canal, which contains the spinal cord, can begin to narrow as tissues in the spine thicken. At the same time, spinal arthritis causes the overgrowth of bone within the canal. This is referred to as spinal stenosis.

If the spinal canal becomes too tight and compresses nerves, there can be shooting pains in the lower back and buttock as well as muscle weakness, numbness, and tingling.

Other causes of spinal stenosis include scoliosis, Paget's disease of the bone, and spinal trauma.

Spondylolysis and Spondylolisthesis

Spondylolysis is a stress fracture in one of the bones of the spine. It is most common in children who play sports that put repeated stress on the lower back (such as gymnastics or football). Spondylolysis can also be due to a spinal injury or aging-related weakness of the spine.

If the fracture weakens the spine too much, the vertebra may start to "slip," leading to a condition called spondylolisthesis. Symptoms of spondylolisthesis include pain and stiffness. If the slipped bone pinches a nerve, it can cause shooting pain, tingling, numbness, and weakness.

Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis is the thinning and weakening of the bones. Back pain from osteoporosis is most often due to a compression fracture in the spinal column. The break can occur without warning, often after doing something as simple as sneezing or bending over.

The back pain can range from dull to sharp. It is often felt in the lower or middle back and tends to get worse with movement. In rare cases, the pain may radiate to the legs or abdomen.

Scoliosis

Scoliosis is a condition in which the spine curves or twists like the letter "S" or "C." It usually develops in childhood. In most cases, the cause is unknown, although it is linked to conditions like cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy. It can also be the result of a birth defect and family genetics (as multiple family members are sometimes affected).

Scoliosis can cause chronic back or neck pain as well as a reduced range of motion. In severe cases, a person may have trouble breathing.

Recap

Some of the more common causes of back pain are strains or sprains, herniated discs, spine osteoarthritis, sciatica, spinal stenosis, spondylolysis, osteoporosis, and scoliosis.

Rare Causes

Less commonly, back pain is caused by a systemic (whole-body) disease. Examples include:

Ankylosing Spondylitis

Ankylosing spondylitis is an inflammatory disease that causes the small bones of the spine to fuse together. This leads to lower back pain, spinal stiffness, and a hunched posture, often before the age of 40. The back pain tends to improve with exercise and worsen at night.

Cancer

A cancerous tumor in the spine may arise on its own (called a primary tumor) or be caused by the spread of cancer from other parts of the body (called metastasis). The pain is often described as gnawing and tends to worsen at night. The pain may radiate to the shoulders or neck and be accompanied by unexplained weight loss and chronic fatigue.

Osteomyelitis

An infection in the spine, called osteomyelitis, causes severe, constant pain. It can occur due to recent spinal surgery or when a local infection (such as a staph infection) enters the bloodstream. Unlike most infections, fever is not common.

Cauda Equina Syndrome

Cauda equina syndrome is a rare disorder that causes spinal nerve roots in the lower spine to become compressed. Besides lower back pain, there may be numbness or tingling that spreads down one or both legs. Other symptoms include foot drop (difficulty lifting the front of a foot) and problems with bladder or bowel control.

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Diagnosis

The diagnosis of back pain starts with a review of your medical history and a physical exam. You will be asked when the pain started, what it feels like, what makes the pain better or worse, and what other symptoms you have (such as numbness or swelling).

Based on the findings, the doctor will order lab and imaging tests to explore the suspected causes.

Physical Exam

During the exam, the doctor will gently press on muscles and parts of the spine on or near the site of the pain. You will be asked questions throughout to describe how the pain feels and where the pain is being felt.

There will also be a neurological exam to assess nerve and motor responses. The aim of the exam is to trigger pain with specific maneuvers and to look for numbness or muscle weakness.

One example is the straight leg test in which the doctor lifts your leg while you lie flat on your back. If the movement causes pain below the knee, it suggests that nerves are being pinched at a specific part of the spine.

Lab Tests

There are different lab tests a doctor may order to confirm or exclude a suspected cause. These include:

Imaging Tests

Imaging tests are generally not needed for a flare-up of back pain unless there are signs of cancer, infection, a fracture, or cauda equina syndrome. If needed, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is usually the test of choice, with a computed tomography (CT) scan being the alternative.

If the pain persists for several weeks or if muscle weakness is getting worse, these imaging tests may be done to look for a pinched nerve or other cause.

Differential Diagnoses

As part of the exam, the doctor will consider other medical conditions in which back pain is a symptom. The differential diagnosis will be based in part on your medical history and your risk factors for certain diseases.

In the end, back pain may be a part of a bigger concern that doesn't directly involve the back muscles or spine. Examples include:

Recap

The diagnosis of back pain involves a physical exam and a review of your medical history. Based on the findings, the doctor will order lab or imaging tests to help pinpoint the cause.

Treatment

The treatment of back pain often takes time. Most people recover by resting and avoiding stress to the lower back. Other treatments may be used to ease pain and restore the function of the spine or back muscles.

Self-Care

Rest, ice application, and heat application can help ease back pain and possibly speed the healing process. Ice can help reduce swelling, while heat promotes blood flow and helps relax tissues.

Keep in mind, though, that rest doesn't necessarily mean prolonged bed rest. Instead, low-intensity physical activity is important to help shorten the recovery time.

Medications

If rest and ice/heat application are not enough to ease your pain, medications may be prescribed. Two of the most common are over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) and prescription muscle relaxants.

Epidural spinal injections, in which steroids are injected into the space around your spine, may be used to treat sciatica and spondylolisthesis. For spine osteoarthritis, a steroid injection into the spinal joint can be used if the pain is severe.

Physical Therapy

Your doctor may also advise physical therapy to help strengthen and stretch the back muscles, improve mobility, and ease back pain. Low-impact exercises like walking, swimming, or biking can help improve your range of motion and flexibility.

Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Some examples of complementary therapies used to ease back pain include:

Supplements, like magnesium or vitamin D, may also help ease back pain. However, be certain to speak with your doctor before taking any vitamins, herbs, or supplements to ensure they are right and safe for you.

Spinal Surgery

Spinal surgery is reserved for when all other treatments fail and the pain is reducing a person's quality of life or ability to perform everyday tasks. There are some conditions for which surgery may be necessary, such as a ruptured disk, bone spurs, or conditions that undermine the stability of the spine.

An orthopedic surgeon can help you determine if surgery is the right option for you and what risks are involved.

Recap

Back pain is usually relieved with rest and ice/heat application. Over-the-counter or prescription pain killers may also be used. Physical therapy can help speed recovery, while surgery is usually reserved for when all other treatment options have been exhausted.

Prevention

Back pain is one of the most common ailments affecting people of all ages. The upside is that there are ways to prevent it or keep it from worsening.

Some of the more useful prevention tips include:

  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Exercising regularly with low-impact activities to strengthen core muscles
  • Practicing good posture and body mechanics (e.g., lifting with the knees)
  • Sleeping on a bed that supports the spine
  • Quitting cigarettes (as chemicals in tobacco smoke promote the deterioration of spinal disks)

When to See a Doctor

Most cases of back pain last for a few days and resolve completely within a few weeks. However, if you have sudden, new back pain, don't hesitate to contact your doctor.

There are a few warning signs that immediate care is needed:

  • The pain persists for more than a few days or is worsening.
  • The pain wakes you up at night.
  • You have a fever, chills, or other signs of infection.
  • You have problems with bladder or bowel control.
  • There are other symptoms you cannot explain.

Summary

The causes of back pain are many. While strains, sprains, ruptured disks, sciatica, and spinal arthritis are common causes, there are others that do not involve the back muscles or spine at all.

The diagnosis of back pain involves a physical exam and a review of your medical history. Based on the findings, lab and imaging tests will be ordered to help narrow the causes.

Back pain is often treated with rest, ice or heat application, and pain medications. People with persistent back pain or a severe back injury may benefit from physical therapy. Spinal surgery may be used when all other attempts to resolve the pain have failed.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What type of doctor should I see for back pain?

    Healthcare professionals who treat back pain include:

    • Acupuncturist
    • Chiropractor
    • Naturopath
    • Neurologist
    • Orthopedist or orthopedic surgeon
    • Osteopath
    • Physical therapist
    • Rheumatologist

    It is often a good idea to start with your primary care doctor, who can point you in the right direction. If the pain is sudden and severe, you may need to go to an emergency room or urgent care clinic.

  • How can I relieve lower back pain while sleeping?

    Start with a firm mattress, as one that's too soft will not support your spine well. The best sleeping position is on your side with your knees slightly bent. Placing a small pillow between the knees helps take pressure off the back. If you can only sleep on your back, place pillows under your knees and a small one under your lower back.

  • How can I prevent back pain from sitting at my desk all day?

    Start by not sitting for prolonged periods. Get up every 15 minutes or so to move around. Adjust your chair so your knees and hips are bent at right angles with both feet flat on the floor. Position a small pillow or rolled-up towel behind your lower back to maintain a natural curve in your lumbar spine.

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11 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.
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