Written by: Jason Przybylo, MD
If you’ve ever groaned, “Oh, my aching back!,” you’re not alone. Back pain is one of the most common medical concerns, affecting eight out of 10 people at some point during their lives. Back pain can range from a dull, constant ache to a sudden, sharp pain. Acute back pain comes on suddenly and usually lasts from a few days to a few weeks. Back pain is called chronic if it lasts for more than three months.
What causes low back pain?
Even with today’s technology, the exact cause of low back pain can be difficult to determine. In most cases, back pain may be a symptom of many different causes, including any or several of the following:
- Overuse, strenuous activity or improper use (for example, repetitive or heavy lifting or exposure to vibration for prolonged periods of time)
- Trauma, injury or fracture
- Degeneration of vertebrae (often caused by stresses on the muscles and ligaments that support the spine, or the effects of aging)
- Abnormal growth (tumor)
- Obesity (often caused by increased stress on the spine and pressure on the discs)
- Poor muscle tone in the back
- Muscle tension or spasm
- Sprain or strain
- Ligament or muscle tears
- Joint issues (such as spinal stenosis)
- Protruding or herniated (slipped) disk
- Disease (for example, osteoarthritis, spondylitis or compression fractures)
Can low back pain be prevented?
The following may help to prevent low back pain:
- Practicing correct lifting techniques
- Maintaining correct posture while sitting, standing and sleeping
- Exercising regularly (with proper stretching before participation)
- Avoiding smoking
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Reducing emotional stress which may cause muscle tension
Treatment for low back pain
Specific treatment for low back pain will be determined by your healthcare provider based on:
- Age, overall health and medical history
- Extent and duration of the condition
- Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures or therapies
- Expectations for the course of the condition
- Your opinion or preference
Most back pain goes away on its own, though it may take a while. Taking over-the-counter pain relievers and resting can help. However, staying in bed for more than one or two days can make it worse.
If your back pain is severe or doesn’t improve after three days, you should call your healthcare provider.
Treatment for back pain depends on what kind of pain you have and what is causing it. It may include hot or cold packs, exercise, smoking cessation, physical therapy, medicines, injections, complementary and alternative treatments, and sometimes surgery.
If back pain persists, visit your primary care provider.