Back pain can be a worry, and can cause serious disability, but some of the most common causes of low back pain are relatively innocuous. As always, knowledge is power, and knowing when back pain might be a sign of something serious (such as a spinal tumour) can help you get urgent medical treatment.
Low back pain is one of the most common health complaints, with almost everyone experiencing low back pain at some point in life. In some cases, this kind of pain can indicate a serious health issue. In other cases, low back pain is simply a result of a minor strain or a simple anatomical issue.
To understand what causes low back pain, it is important to know the basic anatomy of the spine, which includes:
- Spinal vertebrae – the bones that make up the spinal column
- Spinal (intervertebral) discs – cartilaginous discs filled with a gel-like substance that act as shock absorbers
- Spinal muscles – the muscles that run along and across the spine
- Spinal ligaments – connective tissue that helps hold the spine together and support posture
- Spinal nerves – the nerves that exit the spinal column, leading all over the body.
Once you have a basic grasp of the structures in the spine and their functions it becomes easier to see where potential problems lie. For example, if there is a problem with a spinal disc, the shock-absorbing function of the spine can be impaired. This might lead to a spinal nerve becoming compressed whenever there is a shock to the spine, such as when running or jumping.
In other cases, there may be a problem with the bones, such as osteoporosis. This condition can cause back pain in itself and may also lead to spinal fracture and nerve compression.
Where back pain is accompanied by unexplained weight loss, fatigue, weakness in the limbs, incontinence, paralysis or altered cognitive function, seek immediate medical help. These can be symptoms of spinal cord damage, a spinal tumour, or other serious health issues that requires emergency treatment.
Common Causes of Low Back Pain
As mentioned above, back pain often arises for fairly simple and non-life-threatening reasons. Pain and aches in the lower back are common after:
- Lifting a heavy object
- Twisting, particularly if you are also lifting something
- Sitting in the same position for a long time
- An injury or accident
- Taking up a new sport (such as playing golf)
- Sneezing or coughing
- Doing some home renovations or DIY.
Many of these activities put increased and unusual demands on the spinal muscles, which can cause them to cramp up or spasm. In the case of sneezing and coughing, these sudden movements may cause a spinal disc to bulge or even herniate. The result may be spinal nerve compression or irritation. If you do experience pain when sneezing or coughing, make an appointment to see you doctor as this could indicate a disc herniation that requires treatment.
In a small number of cases, sudden shocks to the spine can cause fractures. This is more common in older people and in those with osteoporosis or osteomalacia. Whiplash and other injuries from car accidents or sporting mishaps can also cause fractures or muscle and ligament strains or tears.
Other Risk Factors for Low Back Pain
Some common causes of low back pain are difficult or even impossible to do anything about. Risk factors that fall into this category include:
- Being over the age of 30
- Being pregnant
- Working in construction or manual labour
- Being stressed and/or depressed
In addition, a variety of medical conditions, some seemingly unrelated to the spine, can be a cause of low back pain. These include:
- Inherited scoliosis, kyphosis, or spinal stenosis
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Bladder infection
- Kidney stone
- Ovarian cancer
- Ovarian cysts
- Testicular torsion (twisted testicle)
Poor alignment of the vertebrae is another common cause of low back pain. It may be possible to address poor alignment through surgery, physical therapy, or even by downloading a smartphone app to help improve posture.
Knowing how to identify the common causes of low back pain can help you avoid those triggers. And, of course, managing symptoms at home with back pain relief products can save you the time, effort, and expense of unnecessary medical appointments.
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