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What's Causing Your Lower Back Pain?

October 27, 2023

A woman with back pain clutches her lower back.

Most of us know the misery that comes from lower back pain. Whether it’s the result of aging, lifting something heavy or from years of sitting at your desk with poor posture, roughly 80% of people will experience back pain at least once in their lifetime.

“Back pain can be a significant source of discomfort and it’s only natural to be concerned,” says Colin Harris, MD, orthopedic spine surgeon at Atlantic Health System. “However, a few small steps to aid recovery and prevent further injury can have you feeling better pretty quickly.”

Most Common Causes of Back Pain

There are many different reasons your lower back might hurt. Your back and spine are complicated structures and because your back contains so many muscles and ligaments, many things can go wrong, explains Dr. Harris. Because most episodes of back pain involve soft tissue damage, they will usually resolve on their own within a few weeks.
The most common causes of lower back pain include:

Common back pain symptoms:

  • Popping sensation at the time of injury
  • Burning pain
  • Sharp pain
  • Dull aching sensation

“It may surprise some people, but studies show that identifying the exact structure causing your pain is not necessary to treat most episodes of acute back pain successfully,” says Dr. Harris. “However, it can help your doctor to pinpoint the cause of your discomfort if it doesn’t resolve on its own after a few weeks.”

Prevention and Treatment Options

When it comes to preventing back pain and injuries, Dr. Harris explains that while not all injuries can be prevented, keeping your back and core muscles strong can offer some protection against strains and sprains. He also recommends trying to shed a few pounds if you are overweight and working to maintain your ideal weight when possible.

“Low-impact aerobic exercise isn’t just great for your heart, it can also help protect your back and spine,” says Dr. Harris. “The less weight we carry, the less force the spine sees and the less likely you are to have an issue.”

Tips to prevent injury and back pain:

  • Use proper body mechanics when lifting or moving heavy objects
  • Work to improve your posture
  • Get 30 minutes of exercise each day

Home treatment options:

  • Ice the affected area
  • Gently stretch
  • Take an anti-inflammatory pain reliever as needed
  • Keep moving

“There’s some common outdated advice that you should stay in bed or on the sofa for several days after injuring your back,” says Dr. Harris. “Plenty of research tells us that it’s better to keep moving. Gentle exercise, such as walking, will help you recover faster and diminish the pain after an injury.”

If you are still experiencing pain after a few weeks or continue to have difficulty moving without discomfort, your doctor will likely order x-rays or other imaging of the affected area. Physical therapy, cortisone injections or muscle relaxers might be prescribed depending on the type of issue diagnosed. Surgery is generally offered after more conservative treatments have failed.

When To See Your Doctor

Of course, there are times when you should see your provider right away for back pain. Dr. Harris recommends calling your doctor or going to the emergency room if you have back pain after a fall, a car accident or any form of trauma. This is also true if you have numbness, tingling, osteoporosis, infections, difficulty using the restroom or cancer.

“Fortunately, 90% of people will never experience any of these more concerning symptoms,” says Dr. Harris. “After a short period of rest and some movement, most people are back to doing what they enjoy without any discomfort.”

Be Proactive About Your Health

To stay safe and healthy, it's good to have a primary care provider who knows and understands your health history and wellness goals.

  • Orthopedics
  • Healthy Living