If you’ve ever woken up with back pain for no apparent reason or tweaked your back after a long day of gardening or picking up your kid the wrong way, you know how unexpectedly debilitating even a short-term backache can be.
Back pain is incredibly common: About 80 percent of adults experience low back pain at some point, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. In a large survey, more than a quarter of adults reported experiencing low back pain during the past three months. Back pain is the most common cause of job-related disability and a leading reason for skipping work.
Sometimes figuring out the cause of your back pain is obvious: After 12 hours of packing and moving heavy boxes from one house to another, your back is likely to throb. But sometimes, especially when back pain is chronic, discovering the cause of your back pain can be more of a fishing expedition.
Your spine is a column of bones held together by muscles, tendons, and ligaments. A problem in any part of the spine can cause back pain. Some back pains might be mild and just create an annoyance, but others can cause excruciating pain.
Usually, patients notice back pain after overexertion, heavy or improper lifting, sudden movements, or falling. (Here’s the safe way to lift heavy objects.) Back pain can also be caused by more subtle triggers, like getting your period or your sleeping position.
In this video, internist Paul Knoepflmacher, MD, explains the nine most common types of back pain:
Bulging or slipped disc. One of the soft discs between the vertebrae extends out over the edge.
Pinched nerve. The nerve is pressed right up against the bone.
Arthritis. The discs in your spine have lost their ability to absorb shock, so the bones rub together and create bone spurs.
Osteoporosis. Brittle, weak bones may break or collapse and create compression fractures.
Referred pain. Intense pain in another part of the body creates pain in the low back or groin. This is a common symptom of kidney stones, for example.
Sciatica. The sciatic nerve—which starts in the lower back and runs down the back of each leg—becomes pinched and creates lower back pain and a sharp pain in one or both legs, especially when sitting.
Pregnancy. This one is a little self-explanatory: Carrying all that extra weight in the front can put a lot of strain on the back.
Fibromyalgia. This chronic pain condition creates discomfort not only in the back but all throughout the body.
Cancer. Patients may experience back pain if they have cancer of the spine or in nearby organs.
Not all back pain is serious and back pain symptoms may go away on their own over time. However, you should see a doctor if your back pain lasts longer than 72 hours, or if you experience numbness, tingling, weakness of the limb, pain after a traumatic injury, bowel or bladder problems, or unexplained weight loss. Those symptoms may be a sign of a more serious problem.