What Are Common Causes of Back Pain?

Seven causes of back pain, signs, symptoms and treatments

A woman winces from back pain.

Seven causes of back pain, signs, symptoms and treatments

Anyone can develop back pain. It’s one of the most common medical problems in the United States and one of the top reasons for doctor visits.

Back pain ranges from mild to severe and has many causes, including accidents, injuries, arthritis and herniated discs. Low back pain is the most prevalent.

Most of the time, back pain goes away on its own but when it persists despite home treatments, it may be a sign of a more serious condition and time to see your doctor.

“Treatment for back pain that won’t go away depends on the type and cause of the pain,” says James Bruffey, MD, orthopedic surgeon at Scripps Clinic Torrey Pines. “Your primary care physician can examine your back and help identify the problem with a test or imaging study, and possibly refer you to a spine specialist.”

What are symptoms of back pain?

Back pain may come on suddenly or develop over time.

Sudden back pain may come from an accident or a fall or lifting something heavy. Back pain may develop slowly due to overuse, weak back and abdominal muscles or age-related conditions, such as arthritis. Poor posture and excess weight may also lead to back pain over time.

Level of pain varies. Back pain may feel like a dull ache or a sharp stabbing pain or something in between, depending on the cause. Back pain from a pulled muscle or ligament strain can cause tightness and spasms. Lower back pain that radiates down into the leg often may be due to a muscle or nerve injury.

Acute vs chronic back pain

Acute and chronic are the two general types of back pain.

Acute pain can last a few days to a few weeks and is often caused by a sudden injury. Most of the time, it resolves on its own with rest, ice and pain relievers. Chronic pain is defined as lasting 12 weeks or longer and may become progressively worse.

“Most back pain episodes go away on their own within a few days. But if back pain persists or it occurs suddenly after an accident or for no apparent reason, it’s important to seek medical attention,” Dr. Bruffey says.

Seven common causes of back pain

1.     Spondylolisthesis

This condition causes lower back pain and occurs when one of the vertebrae in the spine slips out of place. The most common cause in adults is abnormal wear on the cartilage and bones.

2.     Spondylosis

This is a general term for wear and tear of the cervical spine and is associated with osteoarthritis, the most common type of arthritis. It can also refer to a crack or stress fracture in the backbone.

3.     Spinal stenosis

This condition results in the narrowing of the spinal column, often in the neck or lower back. The pressure that it causes on the spinal nerves causes neck and lower back pain. It is most often caused by arthritis in the spine, usually in older adults.

4.     Herniated disc

A herniated disc occurs when a disc slips out of position and presses on a spinal nerve, leading to pain and/or numbness and weakness in the neck, back, legs, feet, arms and fingers. Slipped discs occur more often in older adult men, usually after strenuous activity.

5.     Scoliosis

Scoliosis is an abnormal curving of the spine. It’s most often seen in children and teens, especially girls. Curving generally gets worse during a growth spurt.

6.     Degenerative disc disease

A breakdown of soft tissue discs in the spine causes neck or back pain in this condition. It can be due to aging, injury or loss of moisture in the discs.

7.     Sciatica

Sciatica refers to pain, weakness, numbness, or tingling in the leg. It is caused by injury or pressure on the sciatic nerve. It is a symptom of another medical problem and not a medical condition on its own.

What are treatments for back pain?

Treatment for back pain depends on the cause and severity. Treatments can range from home care and physical therapy to injections and surgery.

Non-surgical treatment

In most cases, you can treat mild back pain with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID) that can be purchased over the counter, such as aspirin, ibuprofen or naproxen. If not effective, your physician may recommend a prescription-strength NSAID and other remedies.

Physical therapy can strengthen your muscles for better spine support and improve flexibility.

Complementary therapies, including massage, may help relax tight muscles that are causing pain and stiffness. Chiropractic and acupuncture treatments may help relieve pain and promote healing. 

Back surgery

Surgery is usually the last option and works best for certain spine conditions, such as a compressed nerve or a collapsed or slipped disc.

Generally, back surgery relieves pressure from the nerve causing the pain (decompression) or immobilizes the segment of the spine that is causing pain (fusion). Spinal fusion joins two or more bones in the spine to prevent any movement between the fused vertebrae and relieve pain.

Orthopedic surgeons can treat many back pain conditions using minimally invasive surgery techniques that involve making one or more small incisions instead of a large incision.

Studies show minimally invasive procedures may result in less blood loss, less pain after surgery and reduced scarring. Recovery time often is faster as well.

To learn more about different orthopedic conditions and treatments, visit our glossary of orthopedic terms.

Related tags: