Healthy Living

What Causes Back Pain?

What Causes Back Pain?

Back pain is a painful condition that can stop you from carrying on with your normal duties. It is impossible for a normal person to stay still at all times; every now and then we find ourselves either bending, stretching or twisting. 

Tests and Diagnosis

During the first visit to your doctor, a physical exam will be carried out first, followed by a series of questions, which will help the doctor better understand your pain, movement limitations and any muscle contractions.  It is important to try and not leave anything out including all the symptoms that you feel. Try as much as possible to answer all the questions the doctor asks. The doctor will also ask other questions on symptoms that may possibly be linked to complications of the spine. He will also want to know how you are coping with the pain.

If the doctor thinks that a certain disorder is triggering the development of the back pain, more tests will be carried out.

The following are some tests that might be carried out:

  • X-ray – X-Rays are best for giving well detailed bone arrangement in the spine, specifically show fractures and instability i.e. spondylolisthesis and tumors.  
  • MRI or CT scans - These are more advanced than X-rays and can detect more specific problems in muscles, nerves, ligaments, blood vessels, tissues, bones and tendons.
  • Blood tests – More specific for determining infections and why the pain is developing.
  • Bone scanOnly used to find bone tumors and fractures from compression developed from osteoporosis.
  • Nerve studies / Electromyography or EMG Mainly confirms the strength of electrical impulse generated by the nerve and how your muscles are reacting. It can also show nerve compression brought about by herniated disks or thinning of the spinal canal also known as spinal stenosis. 


There are two types of back pain: Acute and Chronic. Acute back pain lasts for less than six weeks and may be as a result of overstretching or lifting heavy things. Chronic back pain on the other hand, tends to last for a very long time, more than 3 months but are not so common.

Our back is made up of bones, joints, nerves and muscles; all these form a very complex structure. This makes it very hard to get the actual cause of pain from this complex structure. Slight injuries, sprains and strains are the major causes of back pain. Irritated nerves also contribute to back pains.

Situations mostly associated with back pains include:

  • Muscle or ligament strain - Lifting very heavy objects constantly or abrupt movement can cause strain on the back or spinal ligaments. If you are not physically fit, continued back strain will result in hurting muscles spasms.  
  • Bulging or ruptured disks - Disks simply act as pads within the bones in your spine. The delicate part on the inside of a disc can easily rupture and push against a nerve. A ruptured disc can sometimes have no pain. Disc ailments are often discovered by mistake in spine X-rays.
  • Arthritis - Most forms of arthritis and other associated conditions affecting muscles and bones can result in back pains and inflammation. It could result in spinal stenosis, which causes thinning of the area surrounding the spinal cord.  
  • Skeletal irregularities - This condition is also known as Scoliosis. It is brought about as a result of your spine curving on the side. Back pain will be experienced as a result of this disorder, but only when the scoliosis is out of hand.
  • Osteoporosis - This condition causes the bones to lose lots of mass, resulting in brittle bones that can easily break with any slight strain. This can cause the spine’s vertebrae to get compression fractures.

The back pains mentioned above can be brought about by our routine activities in our work places or will develop slowly over time.

Other possible causes of back pain include:

  • Bending clumsily over a certain period
  • Picking up, carrying, pushing and lifting of extremely heavy objects.
  • Slouching while sitting
  • Twisting clumsily
  • Overstretching suddenly
  • Driving or sitting in a stooped position for extended periods without taking breaks.
  • Straining the muscles – i.e. during sport where repetitive actions result in muscle strain.

Sometimes, back pain arises all of a sudden, with no apparent cause. You might sleep well and wake up with a back pain.

  • Cauda equina disorder – This is a bundle of the spinal nerve roots which ascends from the spinal cords lower end. This syndrome causes a dismal pain at the lower part of the back and upper side of your buttock. Lack of feeling at the buttock, thigh and genitalia can also be experienced. It can cause bowel as well as bladder function disorder.
  • Spine cancer – This is a tumor situated at the spine, pressing on a nerve causing back pain.
  • Spine infection – Patients with high fever and a tender warm part at the back are most likely to have contracted a spine infection.
  • Urinary Tract infection – This is a pelvic inflammatory ailment that mostly affects women's bladder and kidney.
  • Sleep disorders – Persons with sleeping irregularities are prone to get back pains.
  • Shingles – This is an infection that can most likely affect nerves.
  • Wrong mattress – To avoid back pain, use a mattress that holds your weight evenly thus keeping your spine straight. Avoid soft mattresses.

 Who's most at risk?

Individuals with certain lifestyles and habits are at higher risk of developing back pain, which include:

  • Being obese – A person's extra weight above normal weight is bound to exert pressure on his or her spine. You can find out your required weight using BMI healthy weight calculator to know what weight you are supposed to maintain.
  • Smoking – Smoking is known to cause major tissue damage in the back. Smoking leads people to live unhealthy lifestyles as compared to non-smokers.
  • Expectant mothers – The gain of weight as a result of carrying a baby puts pressure on the back developing back pain.
  • Prolonged drug use – Prolonged use of certain drugs is known to result in back pain. An example of such drug is corticosteroids.
  • Stressed and depressed – Stress and depression usually develop into other ailments, back pain included.

Risk Factors

Though research has not yet found the exact cause of back pain, the factors below can greatly contribute to the risk of back pain development.

  • Age factor – The most vulnerable people to contract back pain are between the age of 35 and 55 years.
  • No exercise – Exercise leads to strong muscles, both internally and externally, thereby reducing the vulnerability to back pain.
  • Too much weight - Carrying or pushing weights beyond your limit can cause severe strain on your back.
  • Ailments – Arthritis comes in different forms, so does cancer. These ailments might contribute greatly to back pain.
  • Improper lifting – When it comes to lifting materials from the ground, there are certain techniques to be applied to avoid back injury. If you don’t apply these techniques, you will use your back to do the lifting instead of your legs causing back pain.
  • Psychological conditions – Persons suffering from depression or anxiety have a high risk of developing back pain gradually.
  • Smoking – Smoking will act as a barrier, between you and your body. When it comes to delivering valuable nutrients to the disks at your back, try and avoid smoking to have an effective system.

Can Back Pain Be Prevented?

Some of the things you can work on to avoid back pain include:

  • Exercise regularly to keep your back muscles tough.
  • Try to maintain a healthy weight or lose those extra pounds. Eat foods with lots of calcium and vitamin D.
  • Avoid stooping and stop lifting weights that don’t match your body ability. If you have to lift heavy objects, use the correct technique. (Bend both your legs when lifting and let your back remain straight.)