Back pain that comes on suddenly and lasts no more than six weeks (acute) can be caused by a fall or heavy lifting. Back pain that lasts more than three months (chronic) is less common than acute pain.
Signs and symptoms of back pain can include:
Shooting or stabbing pain
Pain that radiates down your leg
Pain that worsens with bending, lifting, standing or walking
Pain that improves with reclining
Conditions commonly linked to back pain include:
Muscle or ligament strain. Repeated heavy lifting or a sudden awkward movement can strain back muscles and spinal ligaments. If you're in poor physical condition, constant strain on your back can cause painful muscle spasms.
Bulging or ruptured disks. Disks act as cushions between the bones (vertebrae) in your spine. The soft material inside a disk can bulge or rupture and press on a nerve. However, you can have a bulging or ruptured disk without back pain. Disk disease is often found incidentally when you have spine X-rays for some other reason.
Arthritis. Osteoarthritis can affect the lower back. In some cases, arthritis in the spine can lead to a narrowing of the space around the spinal cord, a condition called spinal stenosis.
Skeletal irregularities. A condition in which your spine curves to the side (scoliosis) also can lead to back pain, but generally not until middle age.
Osteoporosis. Your spine's vertebrae can develop compression fractures if your bones become porous and brittle.
Factors that might put you at greater risk of developing back pain:
Age. Back pain is more common as you get older, starting around age 30 or 40.
Lack of exercise. Weak, unused muscles in your back and abdomen might lead to back pain.
Excess weight. Excess body weight puts extra stress on your back.
Diseases. Some types of arthritis and cancer can contribute to back pain.
Improper lifting. Using your back instead of your legs can lead to back pain.
Psychological conditions. People prone to depression and anxiety appear to have a greater risk of back pain.
Smoking. This reduces blood flow to the lower spine, which can keep your body from delivering enough nutrients to the disks in your back. Smoking also slows healing.
You might avoid back pain or prevent its recurrence by improving your physical condition.
To keep your back healthy and strong:
Exercise. Regular low-impact aerobic activities that don't strain or jolt your back can increase strength and endurance in your back and allow your muscles to function better. Walking and swimming are good choices. Talk with your doctor about which activities you might try.
Build muscle strength and flexibility. Abdominal and back muscle exercises, which strengthen your core, help condition these muscles so that they work together like a natural corset for your back. Flexibility in your hips and upper legs aligns your pelvic bones to improve how your back feels. Your doctor or physical therapist can tell you which exercises are right for you.
Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight strains back muscles. If you're overweight, trimming down can prevent back pain.
Quit smoking. Talk to your doctor about ways to quit.
Avoid movements that twist or strain your back.
Use your body properly:
Stand smart. Don't slouch. Maintain a neutral pelvic position. If you must stand for long periods, place one foot on a low footstool to take some of the load off your lower back. Alternate feet. Good posture can reduce the stress on back muscles.
Sit smart. Choose a seat with good lower back support, armrests and a swivel base. Placing a pillow or rolled towel in the small of your back can maintain its normal curve. Keep your knees and hips level. Change your position frequently, at least every half-hour.
Lift smart. Avoid heavy lifting, if possible, but if you must lift something heavy, let your legs do the work. Keep your back straight, not twisting and bend only at the knees. Hold the load close to your body. Find a lifting partner if the object is heavy or awkward.
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