Affecting one in four American adults in any three-month period, back pain is one of our most common problems, says the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS)(link opens in new window).
But back pain is not an illness itself. It's a sign of other trouble. That could mean injury, infection, or what doctors call "mechanical problems” — something wrong with the way your back works. The NIAMS says these are the usual reasons for back pain:
Age: A person's first attack of low back pain seems to happen between age 30 and 40. The pain becomes more common as you get older.
Fitness: If your stomach and back muscles are weak, they can't hold up your spine very well. So not being in good shape can lead to back pain; especially if you're not fit and then suddenly go out and exercise hard all at once.
Weight: If you’re overweight, your spine has to work harder and can become sore.
Race: African-American women are two to three times more likely to suffer from spondylolisthesis(link opens in new window), a disease where the bones of the lower spine slip out of place.
Other diseases: Many conditions can cause or add to back pain, such as different kinds of arthritis and cancers that spread to the spine.
Job or activity: Anything that means heavy lifting, pushing or pulling, or doing a lot of twisting or vibrating the spine, can mean pain. And then there's sitting at a desk all day. Using the wrong kind of chair or having poor posture can cause back trouble, too.
Heredity: Arthritis and other back problems seem to be in some peoples' genes.
Cigarette smoking: The backbone really is connected to the lungs! Smoking sucks oxygen and nutrients out of the blood. Then the bones of the spine don't get what they need to stay healthy. Smoking also raises the risk of osteoporosis, which causes weak bones that break easily.
A strong back is a healthy back. Even light exercise, such as walking, can help make back muscles stronger, according to NIAMS guidelines. A note of caution: Always talk to your doctor before beginning any exercise program if you have had, or still have, back pain. Some exercises could actually make things worse.
You can also help head off back pain by paying attention to posture. Just like Mom used to say, stand up straight! Keep your back straight when sitting too. Don’t push, pull, or lift anything heavy, especially while twisting your back. And get your daily dose of calcium and vitamin D to build stronger bones.
Treatment of back pain depends on what's causing the pain. Pain that starts suddenly and lasts less than six weeks ("acute" pain) often gets better without treatment. Use over-the-counter pain medicines and take care not to hurt yourself again. You can also ask your doctor about topical creams and cold or hot compresses.
If you don't feel at least a bit better 72 hours after the back pain starts, the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke(link opens in new window)  suggests you consult your doctor.
Back pain can be a sign of other things like infection, kidney stones, tumors, arthritis, or even pregnancy. See a doctor right away if you feel any numbness or tingling or if you have pain along with trouble urinating, weakness, numbness in your legs, or fever. You should also call your doctor if you have pain after a fall or other injury, or if you are losing weight when you’re not on a diet.
If your back pain lasts more than three months, it could be chronic pain. This kind of pain usually needs longer-term treatments. Your doctor might recommend medication, spinal adjustment, physical therapy, and/or acupuncture.
You may also need to make lifestyle changes, like losing weight, quitting smoking, getting more sleep, exercising more, and learning to lift properly. Support your back so it can support you.
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