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Common Causes of Back Pain

    • Whether your back pain is chronic or acute, it's possible to find some relief.

      "All back pain can't be eliminated, but by being proactive you can make bad episodes less frequent and less painful," says Noah Finkel, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon in private practice in Huntington, N.Y., and a spokesman for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

      Chronic low back pain is pain that persists for more than three months. Often, the cause is difficult to determine. Acute low back pain lasts from a few days to a few weeks, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). Most acute back pain is caused by a back injury or a degenerative condition such as arthritis.

      Although back pain tends to be a universal complaint, Dr. Finkel says, middle-aged people are more likely than younger and older folks to have back pain that's related to lifestyle.

      "Men and women in their 30s, 40s and 50s have a high incidence of back problems due to a combination of risk factors that typically appear in middle age," he says. "Addressing these underlying causes can significantly reduce the incidence of back problems."

      By the time you reach middle age, your bone strength, muscle elasticity and muscle tone have started to decline, the NINDS says. The discs in your spine become drier and less flexible, making them less able to cushion your vertebrae. The degeneration also can make the spinal canal -- the passageway that carries your spinal cord -- narrower. All these can lead to low back pain. Low back problems also can occur because of a lack of exercise.

    • Weight

    • Overweight people have an increased risk for back pain. This is especially true for people with extra weight around the mid-section, which pulls the pelvis forward, creating stress on the lower back.

      People carrying extra pounds also may experience sciatica and low back pain from a herniated disc or a pinched nerve caused by compensating for the weight.

      Maintaining a healthy weight through diet and exercise not only reduces existing back pain, but also can help prevent certain types of back problems in the future. For example, overweight and obese people have an increased risk for osteoarthritis as they age.

    • Sedentary lifestyle

    • Lack of exercise can cause or worsen back pain because of increased stiffness and weakened muscles.

      Sedentary people miss out on the benefits of regular physical activity, including nourishment of spinal discs, soft tissues and ligaments. When there's a lack of exercise, discs become malnourished and degenerated.

      Strengthening exercises for the muscles of the back and abdomen can help provide better support for the spine.

      Participating in a regular exercise program that includes stretching, strengthening and low-impact aerobic conditioning can help heal existing problems and prevent future ones.

      "Movement and exercise also keep the spine healthy, flexible and strong," says Dr. Finkel. "Gentle forms of exercise, such as yoga, Pilates, water therapy, riding a stationary bike or walking, are especially helpful."

    • Sitting posture

    • Sitting in office chairs for hours at a time can cause low back pain or worsen existing pain.

      In addition, says Dr. Finkel, "Most people sit wrong. Sitting forward or slouching down in a chair can overstretch the spinal ligaments and strain the discs and surrounding structures in the spine. Over time, incorrect sitting posture and poor workplace ergonomics can contribute to or cause recurrent episodes of back pain."

      The best sitting position for your back is to align it against the chair back. Avoid slouching or leaning forward, and keep your knees even with your hips or slightly higher.

    • Stress

    • Most people who are under stress and don't manage it effectively tend to sleep poorly, have a poor diet and get little exercise. Add stress-related muscle tightness to the mix and back problems can result.

      Taking good care of yourself when you're stressed by doing relaxation and breathing exercises and finding time to exercise every day -- even if it's nothing more than a 10- or 15-minute walk -- can help prevent back problems.

    • Lifting techniques

    • Whether you lift every day or occasionally, knowing how to do it properly -- especially if you're out of shape or overweight -- can reduce your chance of hurting your back.

      To lift correctly: Always be sure to bend your knees, keep your back straight and tighten your abdominal muscles when lifting. Keep your shoulders in line with your hips to avoid twisting. Hold the weight close to your body. Don't lift anything that's too heavy without assistance.

    • Smoking

    • Smokers are almost three times more likely to develop low back pain than nonsmokers.

      According to the University of Michigan Health System in Ann Arbor, the nicotine in cigarette smoke thickens the walls of the blood vessels. This restricts blood flow through the large and small blood vessels of the lower back and increases the amount of time for healing and recovery if you have a back injury.

      "Keeping your back healthy and strong by exercising and maintaining a healthy weight takes some time and effort," says Dr. Finkel. "But for many people, the prospect of living free of back pain is well worth it."

    Download our lower back exercises and stretches.