Frequently Asked Questions About Back Pain
Sometimes it develops slowly and aches constantly, while other times it comes on quickly and stabs sharply. No matter who you are or what you do, back pain will probably find you at least once—after all, it ranks among the most common medical complaints in the United States. If you want the facts on back pain causes, diagnosis, common treatments, and prevention, review the answers to these frequently asked back pain questions about back pain below.
Who has back pain?
Almost everyone, at some point. One in four Americans will experience at least one day of back pain in any given three-month period. For 2 to 8% of the population, the pain will turn chronic, lasting three months or more.
No one is immune—but some people are more prone to back pain than others. Risk factors include:
- Age older than 30. Back pain often strikes first between ages 30 and 40, then grows more common as you get older.
- Being overweight. Extra pounds put stress on your spine.
- Family history. Certain conditions that cause back pain—such as ankylosing spondylitis, a type of arthritis in the spine—are genetic.
- Lack of physical fitness. When you’re out of shape, weak muscles may provide inadequate support to your back.
- Physically taxing work. A job that involves heavy lifting, twisting, or other demanding physical movements increases your risk of injury.
What causes back pain?
Short-term or acute back pain often occurs after you lift something heavy, play a new sport, or do too much yard work or shoveling. Overactivity can stretch or strain the muscles and ligaments in your back, resulting in stiffness or soreness that lasts a few days. You can also hurt your back when you fall or have another type of accident. Other times, you simply wake up with a backache.
Lingering back pain often occurs because of problems with the discs that cushion your vertebrae. These flat, round rings wear down with age, causing pain when bones rub together. Discs also can develop tears or leaks, and this can trigger intense inflammation in the affected area. Discs can also slip out of place, putting pressure on the surrounding nerves.
Some back pain causes are diseases and other health conditions including:
- Endometriosis, when uterine tissue grows outside the uterus
- Fibromyalgia, a condition that causes fatigue and pain all over your body
- Infections or tumors
- Kidney stones
- Scoliosis, an abnormal curve in the spine
- Spinal stenosis, in which new bone growth in your spine compresses your nerves
Sometimes, doctor do not find the cause of back pain, despite examinations and testing.
When should I see a doctor for back pain?
Mild to moderate back pain usually goes away within a few days or weeks. But if yours is severe or lingers, or occurs after a fall or other injury, call a doctor. Also, make an appointment if your pain comes along with:
- Numbness and tingling
- Muscle weakness or difficulty walking
- Problems controlling your bowels or bladder
- Unexplained weight loss
These signs may mean you have a more serious condition that requires prompt treatment.
How will my doctor diagnose the cause of back pain?
In many cases, doing a physical exam and asking questions about your back pain and health history can help your doctor pinpoint the cause of your pain. He or she may watch you stand and walk, check your reflexes and range of motion, and ask you questions including:
- Do you feel better or worse when you lie down?
- Do you have a history of arthritis or similar conditions in your family?
- What improves your pain—and what aggravates it?
If this information alone isn’t enough, your doctor may order imaging tests, such as X-rays, MRIs, or CT scans. These can help identify injuries to your discs or ligaments, infections, and tumors.
What treatments work for back pain?
Back pain often resolves without treatment. But your doctor may recommend methods of speeding the process or making you more comfortable along the way. For acute or short-term back pain, over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or aspirin (Bayer, Excedrin), may help. Getting up and moving around, doing as many of your normal activities as possible can also help.
If you have chronic back pain, your doctor will usually recommend one or more of the following conservative back pain treatments first:
- Lifestyle changes, such as losing weight, eating a healthier diet, or avoiding heavy lifting
- Exercise including aerobic, strength-building, and stretching moves
- Hot or cold packs
- Medications including over-the-counter or prescription pain relievers
If these methods don’t relieve your pain—or if you have certain diagnoses, such as spinal stenosis—surgery may stand as your best option. Depending on the cause of your pain, your doctor can recommend procedures that may relieve it. Be sure you discuss all the benefits and risks of surgery before you agree to have it.
Do alternative and complementary therapies work for back pain?
Researchers continue to study the effectiveness of back pain treatments outside the mainstream of medicine. Some—including acupuncture, massage, yoga, and spinal manipulation—show promise for back pain. Talk with your doctor about all the pain-relief methods you use. He or she can help you develop a coordinated plan that manages your pain and protects your health.
Can I reduce my risk for back pain?
Yes—you can make many changes to your lifestyle that can ward off the ache. Start by:
Eating a healthy diet. Include fruits, vegetables, and dairy products. This ensures you reach and maintain a healthy weight, along with consuming enough nutrients to build bone and muscle.
Exercising regularly. This keeps your weight in check and strengthens your muscles, supporting your back. Moves that build strength and balance—including tai chi and yoga—may prove especially beneficial. Your doctor, chiropractor, or physical therapist can offer guidance on the best program for you.
- Practicing good posture. Maintaining proper alignment while standing, sitting or lifting can help keep you pain-free. When you lift something heavy, keep your back straight and put the stress on your legs and hips. If you’re at your desk, make sure your knees are at a 90 degree angle and you’re not slouching.