Nearly everyone – from elite athletes to weekend warriors to couch potatoes – is subject to occasional back pain. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, 80 percent of adults experience back pain at some point in their lives. Back pain is also the leading cause of work-related disability and a major contributor to missed work days. Most back pain is acute, meaning it resolves within anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. In some cases, however, back pain becomes chronic, persisting for months or years.
What Is Chronic Back Pain?
Causes of Back Pain
Back pain tends to be mechanical in nature. Some of the many causes include:
- Sprains and strains resulting from improper lifting
- Degeneration of the discs in the spine as a natural part of aging
- Herniated or ruptured discs caused by compression of the spine
- Trauma from a sports injury, fall, car accident or other activity that results in damage to discs, tendons, ligaments, muscles or nerves
- Spinal stenosis, which is a narrowing of the spinal column that exerts pressure on the spinal cord and nerves, causing pain or numbness
- Sciatica, a condition in which the large sciatic nerve is compressed and causes sharp or burning pain in the lower back, buttocks, and legs
Less commonly, back pain can be caused by a number of medical conditions, including:
- Kidney stones
Risk Factors for Developing Chronic Back Pain
Although anyone can develop chronic back pain, you are more likely to experience it if you have certain risk factors. For example, if you are overweight or obese, have a job that involves heavy lifting or twisting of the spine or have a sedentary job but then participate in vigorous activities away from work, you may be more prone to chronic back pain. You are also at a higher risk if you have certain genetic conditions like arthritis in the spinal joints, and your risk of chronic back pain increases as you get into middle age and beyond.
Tips for Preventing and Treating Chronic Back Pain
Below are actions you can take to avoid developing chronic back pain or to treat it if it occurs.
- Achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight or obese puts pressure on your spine that it is not designed to handle.
- Prioritize regular exercise. While general exercise contributes to overall health, flexibility and muscle tone, just getting up out of your chair puts your body in a more neutral and healthy position. Even low-intensity exercise like walking increases blood flow and loosens tight muscles.
- Improve your core strength. The abdominal muscles play a vital role in supporting the spine and helping you maintain proper posture.
- Focus on good posture. Maintaining the proper curvature of your spine and alignment of your vertebrae helps prevent stress that can cause or aggravate back pain. Just a few degrees out of proper alignment, like leaning forward to look more closely at your computer screen, can cause issues if you hold the position for too long or are in it frequently.
- Use proper lifting technique. When lifting heavy objects, keep our back straight and relatively perpendicular to the ground and lift with your leg muscles. You should also avoid twisting your spine while carrying anything heavy.
- Improve your flexibility. Good muscle tone is important, but excessive muscle tension can contribute to back pain. Stretch daily (not just when you exercise) to keep your muscles limber and flexible.
- Reduce your mental and emotional stress. Anxiety can cause muscle tension throughout the body. Use relaxation techniques like meditation, yoga, tai chi and deep breathing to lower your stress level.
- Quit smoking. Nicotine constricts small blood vessels and reduces blood flow to the soft tissues, which can increase back pain.
A Persistent Approach to Beating Back Pain
If you have questions about the best way to manage your back pain, your doctor can provide insight. Whatever strategies you decide to use, be sure to use them consistently and be patient. It may take time for them to produce positive results.