When it comes to back pain, there’s good news and bad news.
“The good news is back pain rarely is a sign of something serious and often relatively short-lived,” says Meghan Murphy, M.D., a neurosurgeon at Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea, Mankato and New Prague, Minnesota. “The bad news is that most of us will experience back pain at some point.”
What’s behind the pain?
Dr. Murphy says some of the most common causes of back pain include:
- Muscle or ligament strain
Repeatedly lifting heavy objects or twisting your back quickly can strain muscles and spinal ligaments. Carrying extra weight can strain your back, leading to pain.
- Bulging or ruptured disks
Disks — the cushioning between the bones in your spine — can bulge or rupture and press on a nerve.
Lower back pain often is caused by osteoarthritis, the most common type of arthritis. Arthritis also can lead to a narrowing of the space around the spinal cord or nerve roots, a condition called spinal stenosis.
It’s not always possible to pinpoint a reason for back pain.
“Sometimes you can trace back pain to muscle strain from a fall or from lifting something heavy,” says Mark Pichelmann, M.D., a neurosurgeon at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. “But, commonly, we see patients who can’t tie their pain to any specific activity or event.”
Although you may want to head to the couch when you’re hurting, continued light activity and stretching can help in recovery.
“You want to keep doing your regular activities and even light exercise,” Dr. Murphy says. “If activity makes the pain worse, back off a bit. Recovering from an injury means a gradual increase back in activity — listen to your body and make an effort to keep moving.”
Over-the-counter pain medications, such as ibuprofen, naproxen or acetaminophen, might be enough to ease the pain. And, if your pain isn’t better after several weeks, Dr. Murphy says you may need to see your health care provider for an evaluation.
“The best way to avoid back pain is to prevent it by taking good care of your back,” Dr. Pichelmann says.
Walking, swimming and other low-impact aerobic activities can strengthen your back.
- Build muscle strength and flexibility.
Stretching your back, and strengthening your back and core muscles, can support and protect your back.
- Sit, stand and lift correctly.
Avoid slouching and standing or sitting in one position for too long. When you have to lift something heavy, lift from your legs — not your back.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
Carrying extra pounds strains back muscles.
- If you smoke, quit.
Smoking reduces blood flow to the lower spine, which can keep your body from delivering enough nutrients to the disks in your back.
When to worry
Rarely, back pain may be a sign of something serious. However, you should schedule an appointment with your health care provider if you have pain that:
- Follows a fall, blow to your back or other injury
- Is constant or intense, especially at night or when you lie down
- Spreads down one or both legs, especially if the pain extends below your knee
- Causes weakness, numbness or tingling in one or both legs
- Occurs with swelling or redness on your back, which could indicate an infection
- Occurs with unintended weight loss
- Occurs with new bowel or bladder control problems