Back pain is one of the most common health conditions in the country, affecting about 80 percent of the population at least once in their lives, according to the American Chiropractic Association. Although this is a commonly shared condition, the type of back pain experienced by each person varies widely.
“I see a lot of patients with back pain,” says Kaliq Chang, MD, pain specialist in New Jersey. “They come from a variety of causes. It’s important to determine the reasons for their particular pain to properly treat them.”
The lower back is the most common area affected, which has a lot to do with how our bodies move and work. “That’s where most of the weight and strain of the body is,” says Dr. Chang.
Here are the most common types of back pain—and what causes them:
Back sprain is “inflammation or damage to the ligaments that connect the bones,” says Dr. Chang.
Back strain is damage to the tendons or muscles of the back. Sprains and strains are usually caused by overuse, such as excessive stretching or improperly lifting.
Disc degeneration is when the rubbery discs that cushion the vertebrae of the spine begin to shrink and lose integrity, according to the Arthritis Foundation. This can cause pain as the vertebrae rub against each other and there’s nothing to absorb the force.
Herniated disc is when the soft inner portion of the disc pushes out from the hard exterior shell. “If you look at the disc like a jelly doughnut, there’s a tough outer portion, and a soft inner portion, like the jelly,” says Dr. Chang. “When there’s an injury or tear on the outside of the doughnut, the soft inner portion [the jelly] can push out.”
Scoliosis is an abnormal curvature of the spine. It often causes the spine to form into C or S shapes, and is most common during periods of rapid growth, like during puberty, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. If this puts “unbalanced pressure” on one part of the spine, this can cause pain, according to Dr. Chang.
Spondylolisthesis is a crack in one of the vertebrae caused by injury, which weakens the bone until it shifts out of place of the spine, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. It’s common in adolescent athletes—especially gymnasts, weight lifters, and football players—due to the repeated stress on the lower back.
Spinal stenosis is “a narrowing of the canal where the spinal cord nerves are,” says Dr. Chang. The narrowing can be caused by degenerative or herniated discs.
Arthritis of the spine is a breakdown of the joint and disc cartilage in the neck and lower back. Common forms of arthritis that lead to back pain are osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and ankylosing spondylitis.
Injuries from trauma (such as a car accident or falling) are common causes of back pain. A traumatic injury can overly compress the spine, leading to a herniated disc, or put pressure on spinal cord nerves, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
“Most causes of acute back pain, no matter the cause, will relieve within a few days, if not a few weeks,” says Dr. Chang. “However, it’s when these conditions continue for more than a few weeks that we start to wonder if there’s a deeper underlying cause that we need to determine.”