Back pain is extremely common – about 80 percent of people are affected at some point in their lifetime. Anyone can get back pain at any age, but it’s more common in people over the age of 35.
Your back has many interconnecting structures including bones, joints, muscles, ligaments and tendons. Its main support structure is the spine, which is made up of 24 separate bones called vertebrae, plus the bones of the sacrum and coccyx. Between the vertebrae are discs that act as shock absorbers and allow your spine to bend. Your spinal cord threads down through the central canal of each vertebra, carrying nerves from your brain to the rest of your body.
You may experience low back pain as tension, soreness or stiffness in your lower back area. This pain is often referred to as ‘non-specific’ back pain and usually improves on its own within a few days.
Back pain may be called either ‘acute’ or ‘chronic’ depending on how long your symptoms last. You may have:
Acute back pain – lasting less than six weeks
Sub-acute back pain – lasting six weeks to three months
Chronic back pain – lasting longer than three months.
Causes of back pain
It’s often very difficult to know exactly what causes back pain. It’s usually thought to be related to a strain in one of the interconnecting structures in your back, rather than a nerve problem. For most people with back pain, there isn’t any specific underlying problem or condition that can be identified as the cause of the pain. However, there are a number of factors that can increase your risk of developing back pain, or aggravate it once you have it. These include:
- standing, sitting or bending down for long periods
- lifting, carrying, pushing or pulling loads that are too heavy, or going about these tasks in the wrong way
- having a trip or a fall
- being stressed or anxious
- being overweight
- having poor posture.
There may be other, more serious underlying causes of your back pain, but these are rare. They include:
fracture – a crack or break in one of the bones in your back
osteoporosis – a condition where bones become weak, brittle and are more likely to break
a slipped disc – this is when a disc bulges so far out that it puts pressure on your spinal nerves
spinal stenosis – a narrowing of the spinal canal through which the spinal cord passes
spondylolisthesis – when one of your vertebrae slips forward and out of position
degenerative disc disease – when the discs in your spinal cord gradually become worn down
osteoarthritis – a wear-and-tear disease affecting the joints between your vertebrae
rheumatoid arthritis – an inflammatory condition in which your immune system causes inflammation of the lining of your joints and surrounding structures.
Back pain may also be caused by an infection or cancer, but these two causes are very rare.
See your GP as soon as possible if you experience back pain and one of the following problems:
A fever (high temperature)
Redness or swelling on your back
Pain down your legs and below your knees
Numbness or weakness in one or both legs or around your buttocks
Loss of bladder or bowel control (incontinence)
Constant pain, particularly at night
Pain that’s worsening and spreading up your spine.
These symptoms are known as red flags. It’s important to seek medical help for these symptoms to ensure you don’t have a more serious, underlying cause for your back pain.