Around 80% of adults suffer from back pain at some point. It’s an incredibly common problem and one that is a leading cause of time off work. This has a major impact on the economy, especially in small businesses. If you are one of the 75% of adults who has suffered from back pain in the previous three months, you’ll know how incapacitating back problems are. They don’t just lead to time off work; in the worst cases, severe back pain can cause massive disruption to a person’s life.
In most cases, back pain is not serious. We might complain about a dull ache in our lower back and apply some pain-relief gel until it subsides. If the problem lingers, we may decide to consult a back pain specialist and schedule a few physio sessions. But what are the main causes of back pain? Let’s find out.
Lifting Heavy Items
This one is very common. We’ve all done it – lifted a heavy box the wrong way, moved awkwardly, or twisted to look at something while hauling a bag of shopping.
To prevent this type of injury, it is essential that you don’t treat your back like a hinge. Always lift from your knees, not your waist. Keep your back straight and upright when you lift heavy objects, and if it’s too heavy, ask a friend to help you.
Physical exercise is good for us. Most people lead a largely sedentary lifestyle, which is a major contributor to back pain. Doing some form of physical exercise 3-4 times a week is often enough to keep middle-age spread away, but if you turn into a weekend warrior and overdo it, you run the risk of straining a ligament or muscle, probably in your back.
Be very careful when working out. Always pay close attention to your posture, particularly when you lift weights or a use rowing machine. Ask a PT to watch you to make sure you are doing the exercise correctly, otherwise you could end up side-lined on the injury bench with a bad back.
A Desk Job
Do you spend your working day hunched over a keyboard? If so, you are not alone. CDC researchers found that 25% of US adults spend more than eight hours each day sitting, often at a desk. This is horribly unhealthy, and it can lead to all kinds of health issues, notably obesity, heart disease, and high blood pressure.
If you suspect your bad back is caused by a desk job, take a closer look at your workstation setup. Is your desk the right height? Is your office chair comfortable? Improve your posture while sitting at your desk and your back pain should ease up in a few days.
Sleeping in an Old Bed
How old is your bed? Here’s the thing – mattresses are not designed to last forever! Back pain caused by an old mattress is typically worse in the morning and then eases off during the day. You may also find that your bad back wakes you up at night because you can’t get comfortable.
Mattresses are past their best after 8-9 years, although the supportiveness of a cheap mattress may decline sooner. To ensure your mattresses lasts as long as possible, turn it regularly. Look out for saggy areas or springs that poke you through the exterior fabric. When a mattress starts to sag in the middle or fails to bounce back when you get up in the morning, it is time to replace it. Shop for a mattress that supports your body weight and your back will thank you.
Medical Causes of Back Pain
Not all back pain is caused by lifestyle issues. There are a number of medical conditions that cause moderate to severe back pain, so if none of the above tick any boxes, read on.
A Slipped Disc
A herniated disc is horribly painful. It occurs when the spongy cartilage between spinal discs prolapses and presses on nerves running down the spine. It can cause excruciating pain, numbness, and weakness in the lower body.
The good news is that a slipped disk will get better on its own. Take some painkillers if you are in a lot of discomfort. The key to recovery is rest, but not too much, as lying in bed will cause your back to seize up. Take gentle exercise and be very careful not to exacerbate the problem.
Ankylosing spondylitis (AS) is a chronic condition of the spine that typically affects teenagers and young adults. It has been linked to a particular gene, but the exact cause is unknown as yet. People with Ankylosing spondylitis suffer from back pain and stiffness. They may also experience inflammation in other joints and suffer from extreme fatigue.
There is no cure for Ankylosing spondylitis, but physio, medication, and targeted exercises can relieve the pain, reduce the inflammation, and ease the stiffness. In the most severe cases, surgery is sometimes recommended, but this is rare.
The sciatic nerve runs from the lower back down into the feet. When it becomes irritated, it can cause a lot of pain, often in the back, hip, and buttocks. Symptoms of sciatica are sharp shooting, stabbing pains radiating out from the lower back, pins and needles, and numbness in the feet and toes.
Osteoarthritis can cause back pain when the joints and discs in the back begin to break down. It can also cause bone spurs to form, which put pressure on the nerves on the back. Because osteoarthritis is a degenerative condition, it is more common in older people, but younger people are not immune to the condition.
In rare cases, back pain can be the first symptom of lung cancer. However, whereas most back pain occurs in the lower back, lung cancer-related back pain is typically felt in the mid or upper back. Red flags include back pain that is worse at night, is worse when you take a deep breath, and that doesn’t respond to regular treatments.
If back pain is keeping you up at night, make an appointment with your doctor.