Ever woken up with shooting pain or stiffness around your lower back with no recent injury to account for it? Perhaps you've made a sudden movement while exercising or cleaning that left you horizontal on the couch yelping in agony. 

Looking at the stats, most people have their own frustrating tale about lower back pain, or will at some point. In fact, experts estimate that 4 million Australians have back problems, and this number is growing each year. 

One theory as to why this is so common is rooted in our skeletal design, says Dr Bill Rifkin,“Our evolution wasn’t perfect,” he says. When our quadruped humanoid ancestors developed into upright, walking beings, they started to bear more of their weight in the lumbar region—the second lowest region of the spine.“When you go from four to two legs, you're putting a lot more strain on the lower back,” adds Dr. Rifkin. “My dog doesn’t get back pain! So for us, the lower back is a vulnerable spot in our bodies just by the mechanics of it.”

The way we move (lift our bags from the floor, bend over to tie our shoes, squat) and the ways we don't move (sit, stand, sleep) often influence our lower back health. There are many muscles, ligaments, and tendons that work together to help move, stabilise, and protect the spine. And the spine itself—which is made up of 24 small bones (vertebrae) that are each cushioned by gel-like cushions called discs—is also comprised of many pieces. So when one of these parts (whether muscular, skeletal, or neurological) is out of whack, you may experience aches, stiffness, numbness, and an inability to do normal, everyday activities.

There are also more serious conditions and illnesses that can trigger lower back soreness. And so with all the various factors that can cause us to bend over in agony, it can be tricky to I.D. the exact root of our pain. Not all back pain is the same. Some cases will heal up on their own, while chronic conditions might need more care and attention.

So to help you explore what could be going on for your body, we researched the most common causes of back pain and how you should go about seeking treatment, according to experts. 

Common Causes of Lower Back Pain

1. Sedentary Lifestyles

Many of us spend a lot of our waking hours on our backside thanks to jobs that have us in front of computers all day. But unfortunately, such a sedentary lifestyle can increase your risk of chronic low back pain, disability, and mortality, says pediatrician, Dr Stacey Popko.

“There is a lot of interest in better understanding the effects of 'sedentary behavior' in medicine,” says Dr. Popko. “And there is not yet clear evidence about what role sedentary behavior plays in chronic low back pain.”

Some exercise physiologists suggest that it could be the way our muscles are activated (or deactivated) when we are sitting. For example, when our bums remain glued to our seats for too long, we tend to slouch and underutilise the core muscles that support the lower back and decompress the spine.

2. Poor Posture

In a similar vein, poor posture can either cause lower back pain or make it worse. This doesn't only mean slouching or slumping at your desk; poor posture could also include leaning on one leg while you stand, or walking with your bottom so far out you have an arch in your lower back. While these postures aren’t inherently “poor” for a moment in time, maintaining these positions for prolonged periods can increase the strain on the muscles and ligaments around the lumbar spine.

3. Sudden Muscle or Ligament Strain

We’ve all heard the story of our friend who pulled something in their back trying to move the couch. (Maybe this was you.) It's extremely common for people to tweak muscles and ligaments when they are lifting with improper form or moving a load that puts too much tension on the lower back. The risk can increase when a person's muscles are “deconditioned,” says Dr. Rifkin. This often occurs when someone isn’t very physically active and has lost muscle tone and strength.

4. Muscle Fatigue

In certain instances, back pain isn’t due to lack of activity, but the type of activities we do on a regular basis. For example, you could have a job that often requires you to lift heavy objects. When you continue to lift over and over without enough rest, the muscles needed to perform the movement may not fire as efficiently, which can lead to faulty mechanics, and potentially injury. The same could be true of anyone who plays a sport that places a lot of torque on the spine.

Rear View Of Woman With Back Ache Against White Background

Rare Causes of Lower Back Pain

5. Bulging or Herniated Disc

The jelly-doughnut-looking cushions between our vertebrae are subject to injury and overall wear and tear. As we age, they dehydrate, become stiff, and sometimes balloon out and irritate neighboring nerve roots. Traumatic accidents and sudden movements can also put too much pressure on a disc and cause it to rupture, protrude, and create pain. While herniated disc symptoms vary, people can experience shooting pain down their legs.

Just hearing the words “bulging disc” can sound scary for some people because many assume that it means that they need back surgery. But Dr.Rifkin says this isn’t often the case; in fact, a disc abnormality doesn't always mean trouble.

“Most back pain is not about [herniated disks],” he says. “If you did spine MRIs on 100 patients over the age of 50, many would have disc problems, but no pain. So it is important to realize that surgery is only indicated for a relatively small proportion of back pain.”

6. Scoliosis

Scoliosis is a disorder that causes the spine to curve abnormally. It has no known cause and is not a common source for lower back pain, specifically, but it can play a part.

7. Degenerative Spine Conditions and Autoimmune Diseases

Certain diseases like osteoporosis and osteoarthritis can cause lower back pain. Osteoporosis causes bones to become weak and brittle, potentially leading to fractures in the spine, while osteoarthritis is a progressive joint disease that breaks down protective cartilage. “There is also back pain that's part of different autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus,” adds Dr. Rifkin, but these are rarer cases.

8. Cancer

Lower back pain in relation to cancer can—in some instances—be caused by a tumor in the lumbar area. "If you have a history of organ cancer—like breast cancer or prostate cancer — it's still very likely that back pain is not due to metastasis, but it could be,” says Dr. Rifkin.

What to Do If You're Experiencing Back Pain

Here’s some good news: If you’re currently putting up with lower backaches, there’s a good chance that it will heal. “Most people who have acute low back pain are actually going to get better on their own in six weeks or less,” says Dr. Popko.

Many cases get better with rest and home treatment. “Try the usual things: heat, if that helps, ice, if that helps—and classes of [anti-inflammatory] drugs like ibuprofen are very, very useful,” says Dr. Rifkin.

It also could help to avoid movements that aggravate the pain, but make sure to stay as active as you can. Prolonged bed rest may make back strains worse as the muscles around the spine begin to weaken and lose tone. You also might want to look into making your workspace better for your body's needs and see if that helps.

If your back pain does not resolve within 6-12 weeks, go see your primary care doctor. They may refer you to physical therapy or to an orthopedist. With doctor approval, massage therapy might also be a benefit.

However, before you take a “wait and see” approach, there are also a few red flags you need to be aware of to understand whether or not your back pain might be a more serious issue. If you...

  • Have back pain associated with serious trauma (like a car accident or a major fall)
  • Have cancer or have a history of cancer
  • Have trouble going to the bathroom or can't hold your urine or stool
  • Are experiencing neurological dysfunction like leg weakness or numbness
  • Lose sensation around the groin area
  • Have a fever in association with your back pain

... it’s best to seek emergency care ASAP.

But again, unless you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, you can take a breath. Try to give your lower back some R&R, and if you're really worried, your doctor can guide you on your next best steps.

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