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Causes of Back Pain

The main causes of back pain, the underlying conditions triggering the discomfort and ways to prevent back pain.

Introduction

Back pain is a common problem and most of us will have suffered it at some point in our lives.

Back pain causes stiffness and ache in the back and is experienced most commonly as lower back pain affecting the lower half of the spine, and less frequently as upper back pain which affects the neck and shoulders.

In this page we will discuss the main causes of back pain, the main risk factors and the ways that you can prevent back pain occurring.

Causes of back pain

For most people the cause of back pain is rarely down to a serious underlying health problem.

Pain arises from the spine (or vertebral column), a complex structure made up of 33 individual vertebrae interconnected by intervertebral discs and other tissue structures.

As we get older, this system linking each vertebra gets worn down by the wear and tear of movement and this is what causes back pain for most of us. This accounts for the observation that back pain occurs more frequently in the middle aged and elderly members of the population. In fact, apart from muscular injury, the degradation of the vertebral column is the most common underlying cause of back pain.

However, in rare circumstances, a serious underlying condition may be the cause of back pain. These may include:

  • fracture (a break in a spinal bone)
  • rheumatoid arthritis (inflammatory condition where the immune system causes inflammation around joints
  • osteoporosis (condition where bones become weak due to loss of density)
  • slipped disc (when an an intervertebral disc puts pressure spinal nerves)
  • osteoarthritis (wear and tear of joints affecting bones in the spine)
  • spinal stenosis (spaces between individual vertebrae become narrower)

In very much rarer circumstances, back pain may also be caused by an infection or cancer.

Triggers for back pain

Back pain can be triggered by a number of different factors. Often these occur while simply performing everyday activities which would normally be undertaken without incident.

Pain can come on gradually over time, perhaps as a result of repetitive strain injuries or bad posture. Some of the main triggers for back pain are:

  • bending awkwardly
  • lifting heavy items incorrectly
  • over-stretching or overuse of muscles
  • slouching at a desk
  • standing for long periods
  • bad posture when standing

Occasionally pain occurs without a known trigger. This occurs most often in the mornings when, upon waking, a person may find themselves in pain.

Risk factors for back pain

For most people there is no physiological or genetic predisposition to back pain, although from time to time, back pain is seen to run in families.

Whatever the cause of back pain, there are a number of lifestyle factors which will increase an individual’s chance of developing the condition. Some of these risk factors are:

  • being overweight (carrying extra weight puts pressure on the spine and puts strain on back muscles)
  • long term use of medication (drugs such as corticosteroids have been known to reduce the strength of bones)
  • pregnancy
  • smoking
  • stress
  • depression

Prevention of back pain

The main way to prevent back pain is to reduce the risk factors for the condition by ensuring you have an active lifestyle, are not overweight and keep stress levels to a minimum.

  • Exercise is the main preventative method for combating the cause of back pain and is also a very effective treatment method. Simple exercises such as walking or swimming will help to strengthen the muscles in your back. It will also help to reduce the likelihood of weight gain. In addition, when experiencing an episode of back pain, endorphins produced by the body during exercise can act as a natural painkiller
  • Ensuring you adopt a proper posture when sitting or standing will also decrease your risk of developing back pain. When standing, make sure that you don’t round your back, avoid slumping your shoulders forward or tensing your neck muscles when stressed. When sitting, use a chair that supports your lower back and make sure you do not sit for long periods of time. Whilst driving, support your lower back and position the mirrors so that you do not have to twist round repeatedly
  • When lifting or moving heavy objects, ensure that this is done correctly by keeping your feet apart, bending your knees, keeping your lower back straight and allowing your legs (rather than your back) to take the strain.

Further reading:
Back pain

Back pain symptoms
Lower back pain
Upper back pain
Lumbago
Back pain exercises