What is back pain?
Back pain is one of most common reasons people see a doctor or miss days at work. Back pain can range in intensity from a dull, constant ache to a sudden, sharp or shooting pain. There are two types of back pain:
- Acute (short-term) back pain lasts a few days to a few weeks. It usually resolves on its own within a few days with self-care and there is no long-term loss of function.
- Chronic back pain is pain that continues for 12 weeks or longer, even after an initial injury or underlying cause of back pain has been treated.
Risk factors for low back pain
- Age: The first attack of low back pain typically occurs between the ages of 30 and 50 and may become more common as you age.
- Fitness level: Back pain is more common among people who are not physically fit, as their muscles may not properly support the spine.
- Weight gain: Being overweight, obese, or quickly gaining significant amounts of weight can put stress on your back and cause pain.
- Genetics: Some causes of back pain, such as ankylosing spondylitis (a form of arthritis that affects the spine), have a genetic component.
- Job-related factors: Job that requires heavy lifting, pushing or pulling, or twisting or vibrating the spine can injure your back, as can sitting at a desk all day, especially if you have poor posture or sit in a chair with not enough back support.
- Mental health: Anxiety, mood, and depression can influence how you perceive your back pain and stress can cause muscle tension.
- Smoking: This can restrict blood flow and oxygen to your discs, causing them to degenerate faster.
- Backpack overload in children: A backpack overloaded with schoolbooks and supplies can strain the back and cause muscle fatigue.
Recommendations for keeping your back healthy
- Avoid movements that jolt or strain your back.
- Exercise regularly to keep your muscles strong and flexible. Consult a physician for a list of low-impact, age-appropriate exercises that are specifically targeted to strengthening lower back and abdominal muscles.
- Maintain a healthy weight and eat a nutritious diet that promotes new bone growth.
- Use ergonomically designed furniture and equipment at home and at work.
- Switch sitting positions often and periodically walk around the office or gently stretch your muscles to relieve tension. Put your feet on a low stool or a stack of books when sitting for a long time.
- Wear comfortable, low-heeled shoes.
- Sleeping on your side with your knees drawn up in a fetal position can help open up the joints in the spine and relieve pressure by reducing the curvature of the spine. Always sleep on a firm surface.
- Don't try to lift objects that are too heavy. Lift from the knees, keep a straight back, and objects close to the body.
- Quit smoking. Smoking reduces blood flow to the lower spine, which can contribute to spinal disc degeneration. Smoking also increases the risk of osteoporosis and impedes healing. Coughing due to heavy smoking also may cause back pain.
How can I or my loved one help improve care for people with back pain?
Consider participating in a clinical trial so clinicians and scientists can learn more about back pain. Clinical research uses human volunteers to help researchers learn more about a disorder and perhaps find better ways to safely detect, treat, or prevent disease.
All types of volunteers are needed—those who are healthy or may have an illness or disease—of all different ages, sexes, races, and ethnicities to ensure that study results apply to as many people as possible, and that treatments will be safe and effective for everyone who will use them.
For information about participating in clinical research visit NIH Clinical Research Trials and You. Learn about clinical trials currently looking for people with back pain at Clinicaltrials.gov, a database of current and past clinical studies and research results.
Where can I find more information about back pain?
The following organizations and resources help individuals, families, friends, and caregivers of people living with back pain:
American Chronic Pain Association (ACPA)
American Academy of Family Physicians
Phone: 913-906-6000 or 800-274-2237
American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
American Academy of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation
American Association of Neurological Surgeons
Phone: 847-378-0500 or 888-566-2267
More information about back pain is also available:
National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS)