9 Surprising Causes of Back Pain + What to Do About It

Have back pain? These bad habits could be making it worse.

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Back pain is one of the most common medical issues in the U.S. About 80 percent of adults experience low back pain at some point in their lifetimes, according to the American Chiropractic Association.

While some causes of back pain are obvious—such as a sports injury or accident—there are other more subtle factors that may be contributing to your aching back as well. “There are many things you may be doing throughout the day that may be causing back pain or making it worse and you may not be aware of it,” says pain specialist Kaliq Chang, MD.

Here are nine everyday habits that may be causing your back pain—and what to do about it.

1. Your lifting form. Any activity that requires heavy lifting, pushing, or pulling, particularly when you’re bending or twisting the spine, can lead to injury and back pain, especially if you have improper form.

“When you’re going to pick up an object on the floor, it’s best to squat and keep your spine as straight as possible,” says Dr. Chang. “Reach down and hold the object close to your body as you come up, and use those powerful leg muscles to not put the stress onto the spine.” 

2. Your posture at work. Slouching or hunching over a desk all day can put tension on the spine, which can cause your back to ache. “Most people spend a lot of time at work—and if they’re sitting down, depending on their positioning or their ergonomics, they could be making back pain a lot worse,” says Dr. Chang.

Along with changing your desk setup for better posture, one of the best things you can do for your back is to take breaks from sitting too long or even standing too long. To breakup sitting time, try these easy yoga moves you can do at your desk.

3. Your mattress. Your bed may be to blame for your achy back. In fact, according to the National Sleep Foundation, 63 percent of people say that their back pain improved after getting a new mattress.

“Depending on how firm or how soft the mattress is, it may put your spine out of alignment,” says Dr. Chang. “So the important thing is to find the right mattress for you that makes sure that your spine will be aligned.”

If you’re not sure if your spine is aligned while you snooze, pay attention to how well you sleep. “One of the biggest tests is to see if you get a good night’s sleep,” says Dr. Chang. “Another way to figure it out is to have someone take a picture of your back while you’re lying there to see if the spine looks straight or neutral.”

Sleep position also plays a big role in managing your back pain. Learn more about how different sleep positions affect your health.

4. Your menstrual period. “For women, your period can actually affect how and when you experience back pain,” say Dr. Chang.

Period-induced back pain is caused by hormones called prostaglandins. These hormones are produced in the uterus, and your uterus contracts as you’re having your menstrual flow (hello, cramps!). If your back pain shows up right before or during the start of your period, it may be related to these hormone-induced contractions. 

Learn more about what causes menstrual cramps—and ways to soothe period-induced pain

5. Your smoking habit. “Being a smoker has definitely been shown to increase the risk of back pain,” says Dr. Chang. “The thought is that it’s related to the damage to the small blood vessels that feed the spine.” In addition, cigarette smoking is also bad for your bones and increases your risk of developing osteoporosis.

Need help quitting? Here are some doctor-approved tips to help you kick the smoking habit.  

6. Your wardrobe. Different aspects of how you dress can cause back pain, such as wearing shoes that are uneven, carrying a heavy bag, or wearing an unsupportive bra, says Dr. Chang. “I know that high heels have a bad reputation for possible causing back pain, but flip flops, flats, and shoes that have worn unevenly can all contribute to an abnormal gait, which causes stress on the spine,” he says.  

Learn more about other clothing items that may be bad for your health.

7. Your exercise habits. Back pain is more common among people who are inactive. “You want to have strength in the more muscles that surround the spine and stabilize the spine to help prevent the spine injury from happening,” says Dr. Chang.

Try these back-slimming and -strengthening exercises.  

8. Your weight. Being overweight increases your risk of developing chronic back pain. “People who are overweight are predisposed to developing back pain because of the excessive weight on the spine,” says Dr. Chang.

Looking to jazz up your slim-down efforts? Here are five unconventional weight loss tips that actually work

9. Your stress and anxiety levels. “Anxiety and stress are definitely related to chronic pain,” says Dr. Chang. “It can be the cause of pain and it can also result from chronic pain.”

Anxiety can influence how closely a person focuses on their pain, as well as their perception of how severe their pain is. Stress affects the body and can contribute to back pain in many ways, including causing muscle tension. 

Feeling frazzled? Try this easy yoga routine to bust stress and anxiety

“When you start to experience back pain, it’s appropriate to see your primary care physician who can guide you in the initial treatments, including medications and conservative therapy,” says Dr. Chang. However, when the pain issue persists beyond those points, you should seek a pain management consultation.”