Back pain is something we all tangle with eventually, but not all back pain was created equal. The reason back pain is such a common experience is because your lower back is the nexus of so many important systems in the body. Back pain could come down from your neck and shoulders, up from your hips, out from your organs, or actually originate from the back muscles or spine itself. Each type of back pain feels slightly different, varies in intensity, and may or may not be chronic. The good news is that almost all kinds of back pain can be treated to lessen the pain and many can be successfully treated with the right equipment and technique.
If you have been suffering from back pain and aren’t entirely sure what the cause is, it can help to have a clear idea of the wide range of things that might be influencing the way your back feels today. To assist in this process, we’ve compiled ten of the most likely reasons your back might hurt and what you can do about it.
The first and most likely reason your back hurts anywhere from between the shoulder blades to just above your tail bone is muscle tension and knots. Muscles are not all one mass, they are actually made of thousands of slippery fibers which is what allows us to move so dynamically. When you reach or twist, your muscle fibers slide against each other and re-arrange like strings on a moving loom to allow flexibility. Muscle knots occur when stress, tension, and lactic acid begin to bind those fibers into a less flexible configuration and the pull this binding creates when you move causes pain.
Back pain from muscle tension can come from almost any activity but is most commonly caused by something you’re doing with your neck and shoulders and in most cases, it’s how you’re sitting at your day job. To ease pain caused by muscle tension, use a combination of heat to relax the tense muscle fibers, massage and stretching to break up the lactic acid holding them together, and deep sleep to dissolve the lactic acid.
2. Back Strain or Sprain
When people say they have ‘strained’ their back, this actually means the exact same thing (medically) as spraining a wrist or ankle. Just like in your limbs, your back is full of tendons as well as muscles that hold everything together. Those tendons need to stretch with your movements and when you strain them too far or at a bad angle, you risk causing a tear in the tendon tissue. A tendon tear in an ankle would be a sprain, but in backs, we call it ‘strain’.
Fortunately back strain can be treated with RICE just like an ankle or wrist. Start by applying ice if there is any swelling and begin resting in whatever position you find most comfortable. When the swelling goes down, start applying heat with hot towels or a hot water bottle on the painful area. Focus on anti-inflammatory foods and medication and keep your back rested while on-the-go with a supportive back brace until the pain and any weakness goes away.
3. Repetitive Motion
Back strain almost always happens with an identifiable event, except when it doesn’t. If the back pain has crept up on you but there is swelling and tenderness, then you have probably accidentally caused back strain through repetitive motion. This occurs when something you do daily either in work or sports has been creating dozens of very small tears in your tendons that would have healed quickly except that you do the same stressful motion day after day.
Back pain from repetitive motion will take longer to heal because it is cumulative damage, but the RICE method should still be applied because you are dealing with torn ligaments and probably some muscle knots from compensating for the strain. Once the swelling goes down, focus on heat in the form of long hot baths and other wide-area heat distributing methods. To go back to work or sport, be sure to wear a back brace and find new ways to do things that hurt.
4. Menstrual Cramps
If you are a female athlete, it’s easy to start examining every ache for a cause and forget that the menstrual cycle is not entirely predictable. Even if your cycle does not normally include back pain, one round just might, especially if you have experienced a recent shift in diet, exercise routine, or hormones. Back pain is an incredibly common symptom of PMS and menstrual-related back pain usually occurs in the lower spine just above the tailbone.
If your back pain is closely related to the start of your cycle, the good news is that there’s nothing wrong with your back. This is referred pain from cramps or pre-cramps and is coming from the muscles around the uterus. Because this is a muscular pain, you can combat it by directly applying heat to your lower back in the form of a hot water bottle or a hot bath. Drinking plenty of fluids will also help.
5. Mechanical Idiopathic Pain
Have you been doing any exercises or serious physical activities that are unusual or new to your physical routine? Lifting boxes, pushing something heavy, or learning to use new equipment can all cause pain based on the newness of the activity known as mechanical idiopathic pain. What this means is that you’re working out new muscles in your back that are not used to the demands you are putting on them.
Unless the pain is surprising and intense enough to see a doctor, mechanical idiopathic pain can be treated with the RICE method. Mostly, you will need rest and to treat your muscles with care. If there is swelling, be sure to apply ice wrapped in a towel for 10-30 minutes every few hours. When the swelling goes down, feel free to snuggle up with a hot water bottle and sleep off the pain. If the pain lasts several days, go to work in a back brace during that time and be sure to stretch out to keep the muscles from healing stiff. That said, we recommend building those muscles with renewed exercise rather than simply letting them relax.
6. Kidney Troubles
We mentioned earlier that back pain sometimes comes from non-back related issues and in the case of the kidneys, this is absolutely true. The kidneys are located on either side of the spine near the lower back and any kidney pain is experienced as back pain. The most common form of kidney-related back pain is a kidney stone. These occur in people with too many crystal-forming molecules in the diet and not enough water, among other triggers. However, kidney-related pain can also come from a kidney infection which is a far more severe issue.
Unlike normal back pain, kidney related back pain will usually be to one side or the other below the ribs. If you feel a dull or sharp ache in your back and side combined with discolored and strong-smelling urine, hydrate and go see a doctor immediately. They will help you treat the problem from that point after identifying if it is a stone or infection.
7. Slipped Disc
Your spine is a truly amazing construction of bone, padding, and connective tissue. The padding layers in your spine are known as ‘discs’ and keep the bones from rubbing against each other when you move and twist. A slipped disc may also be referred to as a herniated or ruptured disk, though these are mildly different diagnosis. When a disc ‘slips’, it shifts or bulges in a way that puts pressure on the spinal cord or on an adjacent nerve, causing pain. When it ‘ruptures’, the flesh sac actually pops and some of the padding fluid leaks out and irritates nearby nerves.
Fortunately, slipped, herniated, and ruptured discs normally heal on their own so all this talk of spines may be alarming, but it’s usually not permanent. While your doctor will guide you on specific treatment, most cases can be treated by alternating hot and cold (whichever feels right), resting, and performing a few specific stretches. A comfortable back brace can help prevent your spine from painful motions if you need to work or exercise while your disc heals.
8. Spinal Arthritis
Arthritis is notorious for causing joints to become stiff, achy, and painful. While it is most common in smaller joints like the hands and knees, it’s important to remember that your spine is one long joint. For anyone who has been dealing with arthritis, it is possible that a new or growing back pain could be osteoarthritis, or arthritis of the spine. This usually causes stiffness that is worst on waking up in the morning and at the end of the day. It is most likely caused by fluid buildup in the back due to inactivity which results in swelling.
The pain and stiffness caused by osteoarthritis can be eased primarily with heat treatment, though cold should be applied instead if there is any active swelling. Heat will relax the muscles and tissues around the joints and allow you to return to more comfortable activities. While arthritis is a chronic condition, many have found that back braces with pockets for heat packs are a great way to deal with regular back pain caused by spinal arthritis.
With any luck, this article has helped you clarify the pain you’ve been experiencing and given you an idea of how to treat it. If you’re still wrangling mystery back pain without swelling, an almost universally helpful approach is simply to take a hot bath or lay hot towels or water bottles across your back while lying on your stomach.