Do you experience chronic or periodic back pain? If so, you’re not alone: over 80% of Americans will experience some form of back pain during their lives, and 31 million are suffering from back pain at any given time. In fact, lower back pain is the leading cause of disability worldwide, and one of the most common reasons for missing work. That’s not surprising when you consider that half of all working Americans will experience back pain every year.
So what’s causing this epidemic of back pain, and what can we do about it?
Causes of Back Pain
The spine is one of the most complex and interconnected anatomical structures in the human body, and because it is subject to so many daily stressors, it is also one of the most prone to injury. It is often difficult to locate the origin of back pain because it is made up of so many different bones, vertebrae, joints, ligaments, nerves, discs, and muscles – any one of which could be causing or exacerbating the pain. The overlap between these different anatomical structures also makes it hard for your brain to differentiate one from another to locate the origin of the pain.
Some of the most common causes of back pain include:
- Muscle or ligament strain/sprain
- Spinal nerve compression
- Lumbar herniated disc
- Degenerative disc disease
- Sacroiliac joint dysfunction
- Compression fracture
However, most cases of back pain are mechanical or non-organic in origin, meaning that they are not caused by a serious underlying medical condition. If you’re experiencing back pain, you might have strained your back muscles by doing something as simple as pick a pencil up off the ground. But what weakens your back muscles in the first place (allowing an injury to happen from such a small movement) is our increasingly sedentary lifestyle. Consider this: 54% of people who experience lower back pain report spending the majority of their day in a seated position.
Symptoms and Types of Back Pain
As many different causes as there are of back pain, there are just as many symptoms and forms. Sometimes symptoms are chronic, lasting three months or more. More often, the symptoms of back pain will improve without treatment after a few days or weeks.
Back pain can take any of the following forms:
- Dull ache in the lower back
- Stabbing or shooting pain that radiates down the legs or buttocks
- Numbness or tingling in the lower back or thighs
- Muscle spasms and tightness in lower back, hips, and pelvis area
- Decreased range of motion and difficulty standing or walking
- Pain that worsens after sitting or standing for extended periods
If you’ve been experiencing any of the above symptoms for more than three months, it is critical that you see a doctor.
Diagnosing Back Pain
If you have back pain, you already know it. But when you go see your doctor, they will do a short physical exam to confirm that the pain is indeed originating from your back and not some other potential source, such as your kidneys.
During this exam, your physician may test your:
- Walking ability
- Leg strength
- Sensation in your legs
If your doctor suspects you may have a more serious underlying condition, they may order additional tests, such as x-rays, CT scans, blood and urine tests, MRI, or a bone scan.
Treating Back Pain
Depending on the cause or nature of your back pain, your doctor may recommend a variety of different treatments. Most cases of back pain can be remedied with a regimen of over-the-counter pain relievers such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (ibuprofen) or analgesics (acetaminophen), ice packs, physical therapy exercises, and lifestyle changes. In serious cases, surgery may be needed.
Some of the leading risk factors for back pain include sedentary lifestyle and obesity, both of which can be prevented by incorporating more activity into your daily routine. If you fall into the category of the 54% of back pain sufferers who spend their workday sitting down, try switching to a height-adjustable sit-stand desk or a standing desk converter to alternate between sitting and standing throughout the workday. Using a standing desk has been shown to boost metabolism and burn more calories, prevent or help manage diabetes, tone and strengthen muscles, and reduces risk of osteoporosis – all of which contribute to preventing chronic back pain.
The advice in this article should not be used in place of talking with a medical professional. If you are experiencing back pain, see your doctor for diagnosis and treatment.