If you’re like 80% of American adults, you’ll suffer from lower back pain at some point in your lifetime. Depressing thought? Only if you consider yourself helpless to prevent the problem – which isn’t necessarily true. According to Kaixuan Liu, MD, PhD, founder and president of Atlantic Spine Center, the most common causes of lower back pain include both avoidable lifestyle choices and some other factors that aren’t as easy to dodge.
Much lower back pain is caused by so-called “mechanical injury” such as a strain or sprain resulting from injured muscles or tendons, Dr. Liu says, or damage to the tissue where the spine’s bony vertebrae connects to joints.
“Although lower back pain can result from the normal aging process, our lifestyle can sometimes trigger it or make it worse,” explains Dr. Liu, who is fellowship-trained in minimally invasive spine surgery. “Many everyday activities we do without thinking can make a huge difference to our lower spine health.”
What factors contribute to lower back pain?
Since we can’t control factors such age or family history – which can significantly impact spine health – Dr. Liu focuses on the top 8 modifiable causes of lower back pain. They include:
- You don’t exercise: Couch potatoes beware: leaving your muscles untested and unstrengthened does no favors for your lower back. “In addition, if your lower back is already acting up, staying sedentary may prolong or worsen pain,” Dr. Liu says. “This falls under the ‘use it or lose it’ phenomenon.”
- You exercise too much: On the other hand, overuse injuries are a highly common reason for lower back pain or stiffness, Dr. Liu says. That may mean you’re simply doing too many repetitions while exercising that tax your back, such as while lifting weights or doing squats. “Exercise is definitely a good thing, but be aware when your body is crying out for a break,” he says.
- You sit too much: Sitting all day – as many people do in an office – places more pressure on spinal discs and vertebrae than standing or walking, Dr. Liu explains. “Also, sitting in uncomfortable chairs can force our spine out of alignment, creating a ripple effect that can result in lower back pain,” he says.
- You light up: Smoking is an all-around health threat, not just to our hearts and lungs. “Nicotine cuts down on healthy blood flow all around our body, and that includes to our vertebrae and spinal discs, which can cause them to break down,” he says. “It also hinders our ability to use calcium to keep our bones strong.”
- You ignore your core: Developing strong core muscles in the hips, back, abdomen and pelvis all help to support the spine, keep it straight and prevent strains and sprains, Dr. Liu says. “Exercises such as lunges, planks and squats and regimens such as yoga and Pilates can help strengthen several core muscle groups simultaneously,” he adds.
- You injure another body part: Back injuries aren’t the only type that can cause lower back pain, Dr. Liu says. “Even a hip or pelvis injury – like a muscle bruise or broken bone – can cause so-called referred pain to the lower back, pain that radiates from one area and feels like it’s happening in another,” he says.
- You weigh too much: The lumbar or sacral areas of the spine that comprise the lower back bear the largest share of the body’s load, so extra pounds only add to the strain. “As few as 10 extra pounds of weight in your abdomen can pull your spine out of alignment, leading to lower back pain,” Dr. Liu says.
- You’re stressed out: Scientists have long known that psychological stress has definite effects on our body, Dr. Liu says, and our backs can end up on the losing end of that equation. “Research has shown that people with major depression are much more likely than others to develop disabling lower back pain,” he says. “Stress can cause enormous muscle tension in the lower back.”
Unresolved lower back pain deserves professional attention
Most lower back pain resolves within a few weeks using at-home remedies such as over-the-counter analgesics and rest, Dr. Liu notes. But anyone with lingering lower back pain should see a doctor for further evaluation, especially if pain awakens you at night or is accompanied by tingling or numbness in the legs or feet.
“We can’t always identify the specific reason for lower back pain,” says Dr. Liu, “but advanced techniques to diagnose the cause – such as x-rays, MRI or CAT scans or other tests – give us a leg up toward getting our patients back to pain-free living. The first step should always be to obtain a diagnosis.”