What is the Cause of My Back Pain, and How Can I Find Relief?

Back pain can arise from various sources, including muscle strain, damage to spinal discs, and certain health conditions like scoliosis and osteoporosis. Several approaches to alleviating it include using warm or cold compresses, chiropractic care, acupuncture, and medications.

The origin of back pain can be attributed to injuries, physical activity, and specific medical ailments. It can impact individuals of all ages and for diverse reasons. As individuals age, the probability of experiencing lower back pain increases as a result of factors such as previous occupation and degenerative disc disease.

Discomfort in the lower back might stem from issues with the lumbar spine’s bones, the discs between the vertebrae, the ligaments surrounding the spine and discs, the spinal cord and nerves, the muscles of the lower back, as well as internal organs in the abdominal and pelvic regions, or even the skin covering the lumbar area.

Pain in the upper back might be linked to conditions affecting the aorta, chest tumors, or inflammation of the spine.

What is the Cause of My Back Pain, and How Can I Find Relief?

Causes of Back Pain

The human back comprises a sophisticated arrangement of muscles, ligaments, tendons, discs, and bones that collaborate to provide the body with support and facilitate movement.

The spine’s sections are protected by disk-like pads made of cartilage.

Issues affecting any of these elements can contribute to back discomfort. Nevertheless, the origin of back pain can sometimes remain uncertain. Injury can arise due to strain, medical conditions, improper posture, and various other factors. Back pain often originates from overexertion, stress, or physical injury. Common sources of back pain include:

  • Strained muscles or ligaments
  • Muscle spasms
  • Muscle tension
  • Disc damage
  • Injuries, fractures, or falls

Strain can occur due to activities such as:

  • Incorrect lifting techniques
  • Attempting to lift objects that are too heavy
  • Sudden, awkward movements

Structural Abnormalities

Various structural issues can also contribute to back pain:

  • Ruptured Discs: Each spinal vertebra is cushioned by discs. If a disc ruptures, it can exert pressure on a nerve, leading to back pain.
  • Bulging Discs: Similar to herniated discs, bulging discs can increase nerve pressure and result in discomfort.
  • Sciatica: This involves a sharp, shooting pain that radiates from the buttock down the leg. It may occur due to a bulging or herniated disc pressing on a nerve or when a muscle exerts pressure on the sciatic nerve.
  • Arthritis: Osteoarthritis can affect hip and lower back joints and other body areas. In some instances, it can lead to a narrowing of the space around the spinal cord, termed spinal stenosis.
  • Abnormal Spinal Curvature: Back pain can arise if the spine exhibits an atypical curvature. An example is scoliosis, where the spine curves sideways.
  • Osteoporosis: Bones, including vertebrae, become fragile and porous, increasing the likelihood of compression fractures.
  • Kidney Issues: Back pain can also result from kidney problems like kidney stones or infections.

Movement and Posture

Maintaining a hunched sitting posture while working on a computer can gradually lead to heightened back and shoulder issues. Furthermore, back pain can stem from routine activities and poor posture. A few examples include:

  • Twisting the body
  • Coughing or sneezing
  • Overstretching
  • Awkward or prolonged bending
  • Engaging in pushing, pulling, lifting, or carrying tasks
  • Prolonged periods of standing or sitting
  • Holding the neck in a strained forward position, like during driving or computer use
  • Prolonged driving without breaks, even when not in a hunched position
  • Sleeping on a mattress that lacks proper support for the body or maintaining spinal alignment.


The primary symptom of back pain is a lingering ache that can manifest anywhere along the back and occasionally extend to the buttocks and legs.

Certain back problems can induce pain in various body regions, contingent upon the affected nerves.

In many cases, the pain subsides without intervention. However, it’s advisable to seek medical attention if it coincides with any of the following:

  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fever
  • Inflammation or swelling in the back
  • Persistent back pain unalleviated by lying down or resting
  • Pain radiating down the legs.
  • Pain extending below the knees
  • Recent back injury, impact, or trauma
  • Urinary incontinence
  • Difficulty urinating
  • Fecal incontinence or loss of bowel control
  • Numbness around the genital area
  • Numbness surrounding the anus
  • Numbness in the buttocks region

When to Consult a Specialist

Individuals should consider seeking medical assistance if they encounter any numbness or tingling or if they experience back pain:

  • That doesn’t improve with rest.
  • Following an injury or fall
  • Accompanied by numbness in the legs
  • Accompanied by weakness
  • Accompanied by fever
  • Accompanied by unexplained weight loss


Typically, back pain can be managed with rest and self-care measures, but there are instances where medical intervention becomes necessary.

Self-Care Approaches

  • Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relief medications, usually nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen, can provide relief from discomfort.
  • Applying a hot compress or ice pack to the affected area may also alleviate pain.
  • While resting from strenuous activities is advised, gentle movement can help reduce stiffness, relieve pain, and prevent muscle weakening.

Complementary Approaches to Pain Management

Complementary therapies can be utilized alongside conventional treatments or as standalone methods. Practices like chiropractic, osteopathy, shiatsu, and acupuncture can contribute to alleviating back pain while promoting relaxation.

  • Osteopathy: Osteopaths specialize in treating skeletal and muscular issues.
  • Chiropractic: Chiropractors focus on joint, muscle, and bone problems, with a primary emphasis on the spine.
  • Shiatsu: This finger pressure therapy involves applying pressure along energy lines in the body using fingers, thumbs, and elbows.
  • Acupuncture: Originating in China, acupuncture involves inserting fine needles into specific body points to stimulate endorphin release, as well as nerve and muscle tissue activation.
  • Yoga: Incorporating specific poses, movements, and breathing exercises, yoga can strengthen back muscles and enhance posture. However, caution is necessary to avoid exacerbating back pain.

Research on complementary therapies has yielded varied outcomes, with some individuals experiencing notable benefits while others do not. When exploring alternative therapies, consulting qualified and registered practitioners is essential.

Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS)

TENS is a popular therapy for chronic back pain. This method employs a TENS machine to deliver small electric pulses via skin-placed electrodes. Experts suggest TENS prompts endorphin production and might inhibit pain signals from reaching the brain. Study results on TENS are mixed, showing varying levels of effectiveness.

It’s crucial to employ a TENS machine under the guidance of a healthcare professional. Individuals should avoid TENS if they are pregnant, have a history of epilepsy, or possess a pacemaker.

While TENS is considered safe, noninvasive, and budget-friendly and demonstrates potential pain reduction, more conclusive evidence is needed to ascertain its impact on activity levels.

Risk Factors

Several factors are associated with an increased likelihood of experiencing low back pain:

  • Occupational Activities: Certain job-related tasks can heighten the risk.
  • Pregnancy: Pregnancy can contribute to back pain.
  • Sedentary Lifestyle: Insufficient physical activity and a sedentary routine can be linked to back pain.
  • Lack of Exercise: Not engaging in regular exercise can increase susceptibility.
  • Advanced Age: Older individuals are more prone to back pain.
  • Obesity: Being overweight is a risk factor.
  • Smoking: Smoking is associated with an elevated risk.
  • Strenuous Physical Activity or Work: Particularly when performed incorrectly, vigorous physical exertion or demanding work can contribute.
  • Genetic Factors: Genetic predisposition can influence susceptibility.
  • Medical Conditions: Conditions like arthritis and cancer can be contributing factors.
  • Gender: Lower back pain is more prevalent among females, potentially due to hormonal factors.
  • Psychological Factors: Stress, anxiety, and mood disorders are linked to back pain.

These factors collectively contribute to the higher likelihood of experiencing low back pain.


Typically, a doctor can diagnose back pain by discussing symptoms and conducting a physical examination. However, further tests, including imaging scans, might be necessary under certain circumstances:

  • When the pain results from an injury.
  • If an underlying cause necessitates treatment.
  • When the pain persists over an extended period.

Imaging scans like X-rays, MRIs, and CT scans provide insights into the condition of soft tissues in the back:

  • X-rays reveal bone alignment, arthritis, or fractures. However, they don’t detect muscle, spinal cord, nerve, or disc damage.
  • MRIs or CT scans uncover issues like herniated discs or problems with tissues, tendons, nerves, ligaments, blood vessels, muscles, and bones.
  • Bone scans identify bone tumors or compression fractures due to osteoporosis by using a radioactive tracer and a specialized camera.
  • Electromyography measures nerve-generated electrical impulses in response to muscles, confirming nerve compression seen in cases like herniated discs or spinal stenosis. Blood tests may also be ordered if infection is suspected.

Alternative Diagnostic Approaches

  • Chiropractic Diagnosis: Chiropractors employ touch and visual examinations, focusing on spinal joint adjustments. They may also refer to imaging and test results.
  • Osteopathic Diagnosis: Osteopaths use palpation and visual inspections, combining techniques like mobilization, pressure, indirect methods, and joint and muscle manipulation.
  • Physical Therapist Diagnosis: Physical therapists concentrate on identifying joint and soft tissue problems.

Distinguishing Acute and Chronic Pain

Health professionals differentiate between two types of back pain:

  • Acute pain emerges suddenly and lasts up to 6 weeks.
  • Chronic pain evolves gradually, persists for over 3 months, and leads to ongoing issues.

For individuals experiencing both intermittent intense pain and consistent mild back discomfort, discerning between acute and chronic back pain can be challenging.


Taking steps to reduce back pain risk primarily involves addressing risk factors:


Regular exercise aids in building strength and managing body weight. Low-impact aerobic activities are beneficial for heart health without straining the back. Consultation with a healthcare professional before starting an exercise program is recommended.

Two main types of exercises can lower the risk of back pain:

  • Core-strengthening exercises target abdominal and back muscles, fortifying the protective muscles of the back.
  • Flexibility training enhances core flexibility, including the spine, hips, and upper legs.


Include adequate amounts of calcium and vitamin D in your diet to promote bone health. A balanced diet also assists in managing body weight.


A notably higher percentage of individuals who smoke experience instances of back pain compared to non-smokers of similar age, height, and weight.

Body Weight

Carrying weight and its distribution influence the risk of back pain. Obesity significantly elevates this risk, particularly in comparison to those with moderate body weight. Moreover, excess weight concentrated in the abdomen, as opposed to the buttocks and hips, further increases vulnerability.

Proper Standing Posture

Maintain a neutral pelvic position by standing upright, facing forward with a straight back. Distribute your weight evenly on both feet, ensuring straight legs and a neck aligned with the spine.

Correct Seated Posture

For optimal working posture, a suitable chair should provide back support, armrests, and a swivel base. When sitting, aim to keep knees and hips level, feet flat on the floor or on a footstool. Sit upright with lumbar support. If using a keyboard, maintain a 90-degree angle between the upper and lower arms.

Safe Lifting Techniques

Utilize leg strength, not your back, when lifting objects. Keep a long spine, feet apart, and one leg slightly forward for balance. Bend at the knees, hold the weight close to your body, and straighten the legs while minimizing changes in back position.

Avoid Twisting While Lifting

When handling heavy objects, consider assistance. Maintain a forward gaze to align the neck with the spine.

Push, Don’t Pull

For safety, push rather than pull items across the floor to engage leg strength.

Footwear Matters

Low-heeled shoes are gentler on the back. Some flat shoes, like flip-flops, can contribute to back pain due to minimal support.

Driving Comfort

Ensure proper back support while driving. Adjust wing mirrors to avoid twisting. Position pedals squarely in front of your feet. Take frequent breaks on long drives to stretch and move.

Sleeping Support

Opt for a mattress that aligns the spine and supports shoulders and buttocks. Use a pillow that maintains a natural neck angle.

Following these guidelines can promote back health and reduce the risk of discomfort.