Health A to Z

Back pain

back pain causes, treatment, prevention

Got a sore back? You’re not alone. Back pain is one of the most common health complaints, affecting about 8 in 10 people at some point in their lives. You may have lower back pain or upper back pain as a result of an injury, due to wear and tear on your disks, during pregnancy or from poor posture. Whatever the cause, back pain can affect your ability to move around and be disabling in some cases. Back pain relief is possible and may include medications and lifestyle changes.

Back pain causes A wide range of things can injure your back and cause back pain including:

Muscle spasms These are a common cause of back pain. A sneeze or cough or an awkward movement, such as twisting to pick up something or bending to lift something heavy can cause a muscle spasm, which makes the back lock and causes severe pain.

Disks The disks in the back cushion the vertebrae. With a slipped disk, the disk between the bones bulges and presses on nerves, causing back pain. As we age, disks degenerate, which can put pressure on the nerves, leading to pain and numbness.

Sacroileac joints The two sacroiliac joints join the tailbone to the pelvis or hip bone. If these joints get injured or degenerate, it can cause severe lower back pain that’s felt in the upper buttocks and down the legs.

Back pain symptoms Back pain can be dull and constant or strike suddenly, with sharp pain that lasts days or weeks in the upper or lower back. When back pain lasts more than three months, it is considered chronic pain.

Back pain diagnosis/tests According to the College of Family Physicians of Canada, there are some circumstances when back pain warrants a call or visit to the doctor, including:

The pain extends down your leg below your knee.

You feel numbness in the leg, foot, groin or rectal area.

You feel nauseous, weak or experience abdominal pain, fever, vomiting or are sweating.

Your pain was caused by an injury.

The pain is so strong that you can’t move around.

Your pain does not get better after two to three weeks.

If you see your doctor for back pain, she will ask about your history of back pain and conduct a medical exam, which may include checking your reflexes and examining your pelvic or abdominal area to look for diseases that can cause back pain. X-rays or other imaging techniques are not typically done unless you’re undergoing surgery for your back.

Back pain treatment Usually back pain will go away but it may take some time. The following may help:

Pain medications Over-the-counter medications, such as ASA (aspirin), ibuprofen (Advil) and acetaminophen (Tylenol) may help reduce pain and swelling.

Rest Staying in bed may also be helpful but if you spend more than a day or two resting, it may worsen pain.

Get in position You may feel relief if you lie with your back on the floor. Place pillows under your knees and bend them on a chair to take the pressure off your back.

Heat therapy Heating pads may be helpful for muscle spasms; apply heat for 20 to 30 minutes at a time.

Weight loss Being overweight worsens back pain. It may be helpful to lose weight if you experience chronic back pain.

Back pain prevention Avoid straining your back to protect against back pain:

Always lift by bending your hips and knees and squatting to pick up objects. Avoid twisting your body while lifting.

Take stretch breaks if you sit at a desk or behind the wheel for long periods of time.

Wear flat or low-heeled shoes instead of high heels.

Maintain good posture by standing with your shoulders, hips and ears in a straight line, your head up and your stomach in.

Stay active to maintain your overall physical fitness and do back exercises, such as sit-ups and press-ups to strengthen the back muscles. If you have back problems already, talk to your doctor before doing any back exercises.

Outside resources
Pain Resource Centre