In some cases, the cause of back pain remains mysterious despite exams and medical tests. In part, that’s because everyone is different—problems that cause severe pain in one person can cause no symptoms at all in another person.
Most causes of back pain aren’t serious or life threatening, although in rare cases, it can signal a more severe medical problem. Here are the most common potential culprits.
Your back may ache after a day of aggressive snow shoveling or yard work. In these cases, you may have overstretched or injured a muscle or ligament. Back pain from overuse usually resolves on its own within a few days.
As you age, the flat, round disks that act as a cushion between each vertebrae (the bones in your spinal column) break down. You may feel pain and stiffness if they collapse completely and the bones begin to rub against one another. Doctors call this degenerative disk disease.
When a disk begins to herniate, a jelly-like filling pushes against the outer outer ring of the disk. This pressure of fluid can cause lower back pain. If it breaks, or herniates, the jelly squeezes out of the outer coating of the disk. This is also called a “slipped disk.” This leaked fluid can irritate nearby nerves, causing discomfort that runs down one or both legs.
Scoliosis is an abnormal curve in the spine that may develop during childhood, adolescence, or in older people with arthritis. It may not cause pain until middle age or later, when it begins to place increasing pressure on the nerves within your spinal cord.
Degenerative spondylolisthesis occurs when the ligaments holding your spine in place wear down over time. Bones in your back can slip out of the proper position, sliding forward until one is on top of another. The condition becomes painful when the bones begin to compress the spinal nerves.
Alignment problems can also begin with pain or deformities in your foot or ankle that change the way you walk. This stretches ligaments and tendons beyond their normal range. Pain and arthritis that reaches into your lower back can follow.
You can break vertebrae during a fall or other accident. But most commonly, fractures develop as a result of the bone-thinning disease, osteoporosis. Over time, your vertebrae can crumble, which can cause pain when you move or when bones compress nerves.
Rare but serious, infections can strike the vertebrae and cause pain, a condition called osteomyelitis. Or you can develop diskitis, inflammation in the disks between the vertebrae. Cancer is also an uncommon cause, but back pain may result if tumors form along the spinal cord.
When you have degenerative disk disease, your body may respond by developing new bone (called spurs) to help support your spine. Osteoarthritis can cause thickening of the ligaments connecting to the vertebrae. These changes can narrow the spinal canal, resulting in pain in your back or pain and numbness running down your legs. Often, this condition impairs your ability to walk and may require surgical treatment.
Other conditions—not just the muscles and joints in your back—can cause pain in or near your lower back. A few examples include kidney disease, kidney stones, urinary tract infections, pregnancy, fibromyalgia and appendicitis.
Chat with a Rite Aid Pharmacist now and ask if your backache symptoms mean something more.
Acute low back pain. North American Spine Society. http://www.knowyourback.org/Pages/SpinalConditions/LowBackPain/Acute.aspx. Accessed January 29, 2014.
Back pain. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. http://www.niams.nih.gov/Health_Info/Back_Pain/default.asp. Accessed January 29, 2014.
Chronic low back pain. North American Spine Society. http://www.knowyourback.org/Pages/SpinalConditions/LowBackPain/Chronic.aspx. Accessed January 29, 2014.
Herniated disk in the lower back. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00534. Accessed January 29, 2014.
Imaging tests for lower-back pain. American Academy of Family Physicians. http://www.choosingwisely.org/doctor-patient-lists/imaging-tests-for-lower-back-pain/. Accessed January 29, 2014.
Low back pain. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00311. Accessed January 29, 2014.
Low back pain. American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. http://www.aapmr.org/patients/conditions/msk/spine/Pages/Back-Pain.aspx?PF=1. Accessed January 29, 2014.
Physical therapist’s guide to low back pain. American Physical Therapy Association. http://www.moveforwardpt.com/SymptomsConditionsDetail.aspx?cid=d0456c65-7906-4453-b334-d9780612bdd3. Accessed January 29, 2014.
That pain in your back could be linked to your feet. American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons. http://www.foothealthfacts.org/content.aspx?id=1386. Accessed January 29, 2014.