14 Medical Reasons for Your Chronic Lower Back Pain
You might have strained a muscle, damaged a bone, or at worst developed cancer. Learn the medical reasons behind chronic lower back pain.
Your aching back
Back pain is one of the most common medical problems in the United States—eight out of ten Americans will battle it at some point in their lives—and chronic lower back pain is the most common cause of job-related disability. It’s the number one reason for missed work days and the second most common reason for doctor’s visits, according to the American Chiropractic Association. Back pain is considered chronic when it lasts for 12 weeks or longer, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). The following are 14 of the most common causes.
Most cases of chronic lower back pain begin between the ages of 30 and 50 and worsen with age, says Kiran Rajneesh, MD, a neurologist and pain physician at The Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center. “We tend to gain weight, be more sedentary, and do less exercise as we get older,” he says. “That predisposes muscles to lose tone and joints to scrape against each other and discs to squeeze on each other.” The body is also less able to repair wear and tear. “Even if you’re healthy, the physics are skewed against you as you get older.” That’s why it’s important to take stock now of the 22 habits that may be making you age faster.
Strain or sprain
The most common cause of lower back pain is a strain or sprain, according to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons. “A strain affects the muscle, while a sprain affects a ligament,” says Alan Cornfield, a chiropractor in the Washington, DC, area. Both can be caused by an injury (from playing sports, for example, or lifting something heavy) or from gradual overuse. The pain radiates into the buttocks but doesn’t affect the legs; you may also get muscle spasms. Treatment usually consists of a short period of bed rest, anti-inflammatory medication, and sometimes physical therapy. Dr. Rajneesh stresses the importance of exercise: “Lack of physical activity leads to more deconditioning, which can result in disc herniation or arthritis,” he says. “See your physician to treat the acute phase, so you don’t get into chronic pain.” If you’re dealing with occasional back pain, these 5 exercises can make back pain better.
A spinal disc is like a jelly doughnut, says Dr. Rajneesh: a soft center encased in a tougher exterior. A herniated disc (also called a ruptured or slipped disc) means some of the jelly has pushed out through a perforation in the exterior, causing pain, numbness, or weakness. It can be a result from gradual wear and tear or from an injury, such as a fall. “The pain is not there all the time,” he says. “It’s intermittent, and when you do certain things it sends jabs of pain down your legs.” Dr. Cornfield adds that pain may result when you bend to one side—”and the other side may give relief.” Always see a doctor if you experience pain that travels down your leg. Don’t miss these back pain treatments that really work.
Osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis of the back, is a chronic condition characterized by the breakdown of the cartilage that cushions bones where they meet joints. “The pain stays in the back along the belt line,” says Dr. Rajneesh. “It’s a dull, nagging pain that is constant.” A physical exam along with imaging tests (X-ray, CT scan, MRI, or ultrasound) can locate the source of the trouble. Your doctor may recommend over-the-counter or prescription pain relievers, as well as physical therapy. Read these 34 things you need to know about arthritis.
Lower back pain during pregnancy is common—and with good reason. The additional weight gain in the front shifts the center of gravity and pulls on the back. At the same time, hormones relax the ligaments in the joints of the pelvis in preparation for childbirth. Prevent issues, according to the Mayo Clinic, by practicing good posture, sleeping on your side with a pillow between your legs, wearing low-heeled shoes, exercising, getting a massage, using a heating pad or ice pack, and considering chiropractic treatment or acupuncture. Back pain during pregnancy is a real issue affecting many women, but these are some pregnancy myths you can safely ignore.
A sudden injury, such as from playing sports, a car accident, or a fall, can damage tendons, ligaments, or muscles in the back, according to the NINDS. A traumatic injury may also cause the spine to become overly compressed, which in turn can cause a ruptured disc. Treatment depends on the type and extent of the injury but may include physical therapy, medication, or, in rare cases, surgery. Find out how to end lower back pain.
A disorder in which tissue resembling that which normally lines the inside of the uterus grows outside the uterus, endometriosis can cause ongoing pain in the pelvis as well as the lower back, according to the Mayo Clinic. The pain is often worse during the menstrual cycle. A combination of a pelvic exam, ultrasound, or MRI may be used to diagnose it, and treatment may include taking hormonal contraceptives, pain medication, and sometimes surgery. Read these 15 things no one tells you about endometriosis.
This is a common, treatable, and usually missed cause of back pain, says Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, an internist and expert in chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, sleep, and pain. “Fibromyalgia represents a body-wide energy crisis and can be caused by hormonal deficiencies, infections, poor nutrition, and dozens of other triggers.” Inadequate energy can cause muscles to get locked in a shortened position—which can cause back pain. Locked muscles may be to blame “if you can find areas on the back that you can push on that are not directly over the spine and that affect the pain,” he advises. “If pushing with your thumb alters the pain, it’s muscular until proven otherwise.” Over time, chronic muscle pain will trigger nerve pain as well, so he recommends seeing a physician. Check out these natural ways to treat fibromyalgia.
Feet are the foundation of the body, says Ernest Isaacson, MD, a podiatrist with offices in Manhattan and Bronx, NY. “Just as a building can’t stand straight without a proper foundation, neither can we,” he says. “Any foot problem can lead to back pain as it tends to disrupt the normal gait pattern, increasing pressure on the other structures, such as the knees, hips, and back.” If your foot lacks good support (due to, for example, weakness of the arch) or if one leg is longer than the other (more common than you might think), an orthotic insert can help realign your foot and relieve strain on the back. Discover more health secrets your feet wish they could tell you.