A Guide to Back Pain Symptoms, Treatment, and Prevention

Whether it's a slight twinge or major agony, back pain is a common and frustrating problem. Here's how to recognize the symptoms, find treatments, and prevent back pain in the future.

Understanding back pain

Whether it’s a momentary twinge or downright agony, chances are you’ve experienced back pain. Experts estimate that 50 to 80 percent of people will have back pain at some point during their lives, according to an article published in the journal Neurologic Clinics.

Back pain is one of the most common reasons people have to take time off from work. Half of all working Americans say they’ve had back pain symptoms each year. And it’s not just adults: Back pain can affect people of all ages, including adolescents. (These are the causes of lower back pain in women.)

Here’s a look at the types of back pain, what causes it, and how to treat it, including which medications and lifestyle changes you can try at home.

Types of back pain

There are two types of back pain: acute and chronic. 

Most back pain is acute, which means it’s short-lived and tends to go away on its own. It may take a few days or as long as a few weeks. Acute back pain usually comes on suddenly, often from an injury. 

About one-third of people with acute back pain won’t fully recover within six months, according to a report in American Family Physician. Though it may take some time, most will eventually improve.

Back pain is called chronic if it lasts for 12 weeks or longer. About 20 percent of people with acute back pain end up developing chronic back pain. There isn’t always a serious underlying condition. In some cases, treatment alleviates chronic back pain, but sometimes it persists no matter how it is treated.

Causes of back pain

Often you won’t know what causes your back pain. An ache or sharp pain develops unexpectedly out of the blue. But other times, you can pinpoint the cause. Some common causes of back pain include:

Injury—A quick movement, heavy lifting, or a sudden event like a car accident can injure your back.

Disc problem—There are shock-absorbing discs that act as cushions between the vertebrae (bones) of your spine. Sometimes their gel-like center can swell or bulge, pressing on and irritating the surrounding nerves. (These are the signs of a herniated disc.) Keep in mind that disc problems are common and don’t always cause symptoms. They can also lead to unnecessary surgery if a scan reveals a disc problem that is not the true source of pain.

Arthritis—In some cases, back pain can signal inflammation and wear and tear that is the hallmark of arthritis. You may feel extra stiff in the morning and that your pain keeps getting worse. (Check out these other signs your back pain is really arthritis.)

Nerve and spinal cord issues—Spinal nerves can become compressed, inflamed, or injured. Sciatica happens when there’s injury or pressure on the sciatic nerve, which runs from the lower back into the butt, then down the back of each leg and into the feet. (Here’s how to get rid of sciatica pain.)

Congenital issuesInherited conditions like scoliosis (curvature of the spine) or spina bifida (incomplete development of the spinal cord or its protective case) can cause pain.

There are also many other reasons for back pain. It could be triggered by sitting at your desk too long, by wearing high heels or pants that are too tight, or how you exercise.

Even smoking may impact your back. A study published in 2014 in the Asian Spine Journal found that weakness in the legs, smoking, heavy weight lifting, and prolonged standing and sitting were associated with lower back pain.

Risk factors for back pain

Anyone can have back pain, but you may be more likely to develop it if you have these risk factors:

Older age—Although kids and teens can have back pain, the average age for a first attack is between 30 and 50, according to the National Institutes of Health. Back pain becomes more common the older you are, as you lose bone strength, discs lose fluid, and the risk of arthritis increases. 

Physical fitness—You’re more likely to have back pain if you’re not physically fit. Strong back and abdominal muscles—your core—help support the spine. If you exercise only occasionally after being inactive, you’re more likely to have painful back injuries. (Here are six at-home exercises that strengthen your core.)

Lifestyle factors—Frequently lifting, pushing, or pulling heavy items, especially when you also twist the spine, can lead to back pain and injury. Sitting all day can also add to pain, particularly from poor posture or sitting in a chair without good back support.

WeightBeing overweight can put stress on the back and lead to back pain.

Genetics—Some causes of back pain, like scoliosis, are inherited.

Emotional well-being—Stress can cause muscle tension. Anxiety and depression can impact how you focus on any type of pain and how you care for yourself. (Here’s how one woman found her emotions were linked to back pain.)

SmokingSmoking can keep blood and oxygen from reaching discs in the spine, which can cause them to degenerate.

(Learn how your brain can help back pain.)

Back pain diagnosis

Your doctors will examine you and ask questions about your symptoms and when your pain started. They may suggest tests to pinpoint the cause or to rule out more serious issues. Tests might include X-rays, CT scans, or MRIs. They may request blood work to look for other underlying illnesses.

Even after tests and an exam, sometimes the cause of back pain can be difficult to determine.

(Learn the signs your back pain is an emergency.)

Treatments and prevention for back pain

Most back pain gets better with home treatment. You might start with a day or two of rest, but more than that can make it worse. Short-term use of over-the-counter pain relievers should also help ease the pain.

Lower back pain treatments that really work include stretching, yoga, and regular exercise for back pain. You can try home remedies for back pain, like cold or heat, depending on which feels better. (Not sure if you should ice or heat your lower back pain? Here’s what the experts say.)

You may get relief—and help prevent back pain—by working on your posture. A posture corrector may help you treat and prevent lower back pain. Some people have success with using back massagers and choosing a mattress with proper support. (Learn the best sleeping position for lower back pain.)

If home treatments don’t help, your doctor may suggest physical therapy and prescription or OTC pain relievers.

Medications can include:

  • Oral pain relievers, including non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen and naproxen and other medications, like acetaminophen
  • Topical pain relievers available as creams, sprays, gels, or patches
  • Muscle relaxants to ease tight muscles

If these treatments don’t work to alleviate your severe pain, you might need cortisone injections or surgery. Surgery is usually recommended to treat structural problems that cause nerve damage or nerve compression.

Products for back pain

These products may help you find relief from your pain.

Personal stories

Stories of people living with back pain can help you manage your own pain. Here are some that show what it’s like to live with this issue.

Next, here are the signs your back pain is serious.

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