In this Article

Symptoms

Symptoms depend on the injury and will be different in each case. In general, most people feel:

  • Tightness, or reduced range of motion is various areas of the back
  • A burning sensation
  • Sharp, intense pain when moving
  • Shooting pain and/or tingling in the leg or buttocks

Who Gets Back Pain?

Most people will have an episode of back pain by the time they are 40 years old. It becomes more common as we age. It is also more common in people who:

  • Are not physically active. This is because the muscles in the back and abdomen (belly) become weak over time and can’t support the spine.
  • Eat an unhealthy diet. Foods high in sugar calories and saturated fat contribute to overweight and obesity, which can strain the back and other joints.
  • Have a physically demanding job. Work that requires heavy lifting, pulling, pushing, or working in tight, cramped spaces, may be the source of strain or injury.
  • Inherit medical problems. Some diseases, such as ankylosing spondylitis (a type of arthritis), run in families.
  • Have other medical problems. Conditions such as osteoarthritis or cancer can cause back pain.

When to See a Doctor

Make an appointment to see your healthcare provider if you develop any of these symptoms:

  • Sudden, severe pain
  • Severe back pain that gets worse over several weeks instead of getting better
  • Back pain that lasts longer than 8 weeks or returns regularly
  • Numbness or weakness in your legs
  • Fever

See your healthcare provider immediately or go to the nearest emergency room if you have any of these symptoms:

  • Difficulty urinating or controlling urine
  • Blood in your urine
  • Loss of bowel control

What Causes Back Pain?

Back pain can be caused by:

  • Injuries, such as sprains (ligaments), strains (muscles), or fractures (bones)
  • Disk problems, such as herniation (rupture) or degeneration (breakdown)
  • Diseases or conditions, such as arthritis, pregnancy, kidney stones, cancer or infection

While not a cause of back pain, it can be made worse by stress, which can make your muscles tight and sore.

Diagnosis and Tests

Not all back pain episodes require a healthcare provider’s visit. You can often manage your pain on your own and return to normal activities in a short time. If you do see your healthcare provider, he or she will do a medical history and physical exam. If a serious condition is suspected, you may need to have lab tests, X-rays, a CT scan, or an MRI.

Treatments

Based on your test results, medical history, and physical exam, your healthcare provider may recommend:

  • Education and activity. Your healthcare provider will talk with you about avoiding bed rest, staying active, and practicing good body mechanics.
  • Medicines for pain relief. Your healthcare provider may recommend over-the-counter or prescription-strength anti-inflammatories (such as ibuprofen or naproxen) or acetaminophen. For more severe cases, you might need to take a short course of muscle relaxers to reduce muscle tension and increase ability to move. Acute back pain rarely requires treatment with steroids or narcotics.
  • Referral to a physical therapist. A physical therapist can create and supervise an individual exercise program for increasing your flexibility and strength. Earlier treatment tends to produce better results than waiting. (If your insurance doesn’t cover physical therapy, ask your healthcare provider for exercise recommendations.)
  • Surgery. In most cases, chronic back pain does NOT require surgery. However, if back pain is caused by a problem with a nerve root, tumor, infection, or serious structural problem, surgery may be needed to fix the problem.

How Can I Prevent Back Pain?

There are certain things you can do to lower your chances of having problems with your back. Here are some suggestions:

  • Practice good body mechanics. The term “body mechanics” refers to how you move and hold your body. Building good habits is one of the most important things you can do to protect yourself from painful back episodes.
  • Get regular exercise. Regular activity keeps your body strong and flexible to help support your back. Establish and maintain a regular exercise program that includes aerobic training (such as walking, swimming, or cycling) as well as stomach and back strengthening.
  • Manage your weight. Extra pounds put extra stress on your back, hips, knees and ankles. To lose weight, eat more fruits, vegetables, and low-fat foods. Keep portions small, avoid junk food, and exercise regularly!
  • Avoid activities that require heavy lifting, trunk twisting, or bodily vibration. These activities can place lots of stress and strain on your back. Avoid them when possible — and always use proper body mechanics.
  • Reduce stress. Stress has also been shown to affect low back pain. Stress can cause muscular tension and sometimes spasm. Look at ways to reduce or manage the stress in your life.