You probably know that a fall down the stairs or too much time sitting can leave your back feeling less than great. But back pain can be the result of an underlying medical condition, too. In fact, 8 out of 10 Americans have back pain at some point in their lives.
Here are some of the common health conditions that cause back pain.
Disks are filled with a jelly-like substance that provide cushioning between your vertebrae and help keep them in place. A disk that ruptures is called a herniated disk; when this occurs in the lower area of the spine, the disk can leak and press against nerves, contributing to back pain.
If you’re having pain in the back, hip, buttocks, legs or feet – particularly with feelings of numbness – see your doctor for a physical exam and possibly imaging tests. Depending on the severity of the condition, prescription pain medications, physical therapy, steroid injections or surgery may be needed.
Degenerative Disk Disease
Degenerative disk disease is a condition that involves deteriorating disks between the vertebrae. Some degeneration is natural as you age – disks become dry and lose their ability to absorb shocks. Traumatic injuries and the wear and tear caused by high-impact sports can also lead to disk tearing, inflammation and soreness.
Here’s what to watch out for:
- Pain that can be nagging, severe or disabling
- Numbness, pain, tingling or weakness in the back, buttocks, thigh or leg areas
- Pain that is exacerbated by sitting, bending or lifting
- Pain that improves with walking, moving around or changing positions when lying down
- Pain that comes in waves and can last for a couple of days to a few months
A physical exam, medical history and MRI can usually help your doctor determine whether you have the signs of degenerative disk disease. Treatments may include physical therapy, heat and cold therapy, medication and surgery.
You know that arthritis (inflammation of joints) can give you creaky knees and sore hands, but it often affects the spine too, particularly the lower back. There are many types of arthritis, but a few are most likely to attack your back.
Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common, and it usually happens after age 40. It often accompanies degenerative disc disease, and involves the breakdown of the joints where the vertebra connect with each other. Symptoms include lower back pain that can spread down your legs, or neck pain that radiates to the shoulder. It tends to hurt most in the morning and during activities, especially twisting or bending, and is relieved by rest.
Less often, rheumatoid arthritis, gout and infections can affect the spine. See your doctor if your pain associated with arthritis doesn’t get better with time.
Injuries to the back can obviously lead to aches and pains, especially, when it comes to short-term pain. In fact, injuries are the most common cause of acute back pain. Besides herniated discs, these are among the most common:
- Spinal fractures
Osteoporosis involves bones that become weakened over time, making them more vulnerable to breaks and leading to back pain. Millions of Americans have osteoporosis.
Risk factors include:
- Having a thin frame or low bone density
- Certain medications
Some people don’t have any symptoms until they break a bone. Your doctor can recommend a bone mineral density test to confirm whether or not you have osteoporosis, but you can strengthen your bones proactively by adopting a diet rich in calcium, vitamin D and protein, getting regular exercise and quitting smoking. Be sure to check with your doctor before taking calcium and vitamin D supplements.
Kidney stones can also lead to back pain. Kidney stones are hard kidney formations that are classified as either calcium, uric acid, struvite or cystine stones. Calcium stones are most common, and occur when calcium buildup isn’t naturally flushed out through your urine.
Larger kidney stones may cause side or back pain.
- Smelly or bloody urine
- Burning during urination
See a urologist if you have these symptoms, as they may want to test your urine or blood, or perform an x-ray of the abdomen or a computed tomography (CT) scan (or a combination of the two).
If you are managing persistent or chronic back pain, discuss treatment options with your doctor to begin your journey to a healthier, more enjoyable life.