Most people experience lower back pain at some point in their lives. Back pain can happen to anyone, but usually occurs in older age. Pain in your lower back may be attributed to several causes—whether it’s a slipped disk or plain ol’ bad posture. But what exactly is triggering your lower back pain? Is one type of back pain worse than another?
Here’s everything you need to know about what causes lower back pain.
What would be considered lower back pain?
Lower back pain refers to any pain or discomfort experienced in the bottom region of the spine. The lower part of the spine is called the “lumbar spine”. This is the region of the spine which supports most of the upper body’s weight, which is no wonder why it’s so susceptible to pain. The main symptom of lower back pain is, as the name suggests, an ache or pain in the lower back. Depending on the root cause of pain, the pain can extend down to the buttocks and legs.
Some other symptoms include pain upon touch, difficulty moving, muscle spasms and tingling sensations.
What can trigger lower back pain?
Lower back pain can caused by a muscle strain due to engaging in some form of strenuous activity. However, often it’s tough to pin what exact triggered back pain. A lot of times, pain is caused by general wear and tear and aging. In rarer circumstances, lower back pain may be from a serious underlying condition (like cancer or an infection).
These are the most common triggers for lower back pain:
- Unhealthy lifestyle. An unhealthy lifestyle won’t automatically cause back pain, but it can increase your risk or contribute to existing back pain. Bad habits such as smoking, having a poor diet, alcohol abuse, or having bad posture can increase your risk of back pain.
- Muscle strains or sprains. When you improperly lift heavy objects, twist your back or overstretch, you risk straining ligaments and muscle tissue in your lower back. Strains occur when a muscle is stretched too far and tears, damaging the muscle itself. Sprains happen when over-stretching and tearing affect ligaments, which connect the bones together. Common causes of sprain and strain include; lifting a heavy object, or twisting the spine while lifting, sudden movements that place too much stress on the low back, such as a fall or poor posture over time.
- Herniated or slipped disc. The vertebrae (thought of as the “bony building blocks of the spine”) are cushioned by gel-like discs in between the vertebrae. When a disc ruptures, it is referred to as a herniated disc, which can cause significant pain.
- Sciatica. Sciatica is caused by a problem with the sciatic nerve. This is a large nerve that runs from the lower back down the back of each leg. When something injures or puts pressure on the sciatic nerve, it can cause pain in the lower back that spreads to the hip, buttocks, and leg.
- Spondylosis. Spondylosis is a spine condition that describes the natural deterioration of the spine due to age and compression. While spondylosis can occur throughout the spine, the most common location of occurrence is in the lowest portion of the spine, this is known as lumbar spondylosis. Lumbar spondylosis results in acute lower back pain. Most mild forms of spondylosis respond well to conservative treatment methods, such as chiropractic care and physical therapy.
- Deformity. Abnormal curvature of the spine, caused by scoliosis or kyphosis places pressure on the muscles, tendons, ligaments, and vertebrae, causing pain and poor posture.
- Spinal stenosis. Spinal stenosis is an abnormal narrowing of the normal spinal canal through which the spinal cord passes, this of course result in lower back pain.
What are the types of lower back pain?
There are a couple of ways to classify lower back pain, the most common is by cause. There are three general types of low back pain by cause:
- Mechanical back pain. This is caused by injury to the muscles or ligaments that make up the lower back.
- Non-mechanical back pain. This can be caused by certain diseases, such as spinal cancer or an aortic aneurysm.
- Referred pain. Referred pain is pain you feel at a location other than the site causing the pain. Referred pain from a disease or an infection can sometimes trigger lower back pain.
Lower back pain can also be categorized into acute, subacute and chronic pain.
Who is most likely to develop lower back pain?
Even though back pain can affect people of any age, it is significantly more common among adults between 35 and 55+ years old. Factors such as depression, pregnancy, obesity, smoking, and gender may make you more susceptible to lower back pain.
For instance, pregnancy can accompany lower back pain due to changes in the woman’s pelvis and weight gain. This pain is almost always resolved postpartum. When it comes to depression, lower back pain can be both a symptom and cause of depression.
When should you worry about lower back pain?
There are cases of lower back pain that have alarming causes, but it’s rare. Once in a while, lower back pain might be a warning sign of cancer, spinal cord damage or an autoimmune disease. When the pain is accompanied by symptoms such as weight loss, difficulty urinating or a fever it’s advisable to see a doctor immediately. According to the British National Health Service (NHS), the following groups of people should seek medical advice if they experience back pain:
- People aged less than 20 and more than 55 years
- Patients who have been taking steroids for a few months
- Drug abusers
- Patients with cancer
- Patients who have had cancer
- Patients with depressed immune systems
How can you prevent lower back pain?
The best way to prevent lower back pain is by exercising regularly. Core strengthening and flexibility exercises are commonly used to prevent lower back pain. Core strengthening exercises work out the abdominal and back muscles while flexibility exercises improves the flexibility in your spine. If you are overweight, losing extra weight can unload a lot of pressure off your spine and other joints. This is one of the best non-invasive ways to reduce pain.
Here are the some best ways to prevent/ reduce back pain:
- Strengthen your abdominal core
- Work to improve your posture (through exercise, creating a more ergonomic workspace)
- Work with professionals to “nip pain in the bud” before it worsens. This may be working with physical therapists, massage therapists, acupuncturists etc.
- Quit or avoid smoking. Smokers are nearly a third more likely to have low back pain compared to nonsmokers.
- Manage mental health. Those with depression, anxiety and high stress are more likely to develop chronic back pain.
How can you overcome lower back pain?
If you experience lower back pain, there’s no need to fret. There are quite a number of lower back pain treatment options. A couple of them include:
- Self-care. Basic remedies applied at home can be effective for treating mild or acute pain from muscle strain, as well as reducing the effects of chronic, severe pain. Self-care methods include short rest periods, heat or ice therapy and using over the counter pain medications.
- Exercise. Exercising might feel a lot harder dealing with lower back pain, but it is good for your back. Exercise helps to strengthen the back muscles and support your spine, relieving back pain. Not all exercises are helpful, however. Sit-ups, for example, might be doing more harm than good, depending on the cause of your lower back pain. Ask a professional before trying any exercise out.
- Surgery. In some severe cases, surgery might be necessary. Back surgery is often a last resort when all other treatment options have been tried. It is usually considered an option to relieve pain caused by serious musculoskeletal injuries or nerve compression resulting from vertebrae shifting or collapsing.
- Spinal manipulation. This an approach in which professionally licensed specialists like chiropractors use their hands to mobilize, adjust, massage, or stimulate the spine and the surrounding tissues. This technique has been shown to provide small to moderate short-term benefits in people with chronic low back pain.
- Improving Mental and Emotional Health Therapy, meditation, yoga, and other breathing techniques can help you manage your back pain by changing how you think about your condition, and reducing stress and anxiety. Chronic back pain is very closely linked to depression and mental health.
- PreHab with PeerWell. A PreHab program that guides you through daily lessons designed to treat back pain (like eating anti-inflammatory foods, employing mindfulness meditation, performing core strengthening exercises etc.) can drastically improve your condition. Learn more about PeerWell’s PreHab program for back pain and spine surgery preparation.