Affecting millions of people in the United States alone, everyone experiences some form of lower back pain at some point. While a stiff back after a morning of yard work or a slight tweak from a tough workout are normal and usually improve in a few days, chronic back pain can be a bigger problem. According to the National Institute of Health, about 8.2% of the population deals with persistent or chronic low back pain.
At its most severe, chronic low back pain can be extremely debilitating, affecting your ability to do nearly any activity. People with lower back pain report decreased job performance, mental health problems and diminished quality of life. While it can feel hopeless, it’s important for anyone living with low back pain to keep a positive attitude and work with providers to learn as much about their condition as possible.
Why Is Low Back Pain So Common, and What Are the Risk Factors?
One of the reasons why lower back pain is so common is because of the sheer amount of stress this part of the body endures on a daily basis. The lower back is made to support the upper body while being flexible enough to bend, stretch and flex. To do this, the lumbar (lower) spine is made of five vertebrae linked by joints, discs, connective tissue and muscle.
All of these individual parts are put under tremendous pressure while we walk, run, lift and even sit in our chairs. What’s more, the joints and discs in the spine are subject to the same age-related degeneration as other parts of the body, causing them to dry out and break down over time. This combination of pressure and aging makes injuries and conditions much more common in the lower back, especially when combined with the following risk factors:
- Placing extra stress on the spine by being overweight
- Weak core muscles and supporting tissue due to lack of exercise
- Smoking and tobacco use, which can decrease circulation
- Postural and mechanical issues that can cause uneven distribution of pressure
If you’re experiencing lower back pain, it’s important to receive a diagnosis from a qualified medical professional, such as your family doctor or a pain management specialist. Different causes of back pain cause a variety of symptoms and can require varying treatment.
These are Five of the Most Common Causes of Low Back Pain
There are hundreds of injuries and conditions that can affect the lower back and spine, but here are five of the most frequent underlying causes of back pain.
1. Strains, Sprains and Other Injuries
This is by far the most common cause of back pain overall. The lower spine is supported by an intricate arrangement of muscles, tendons and ligaments that help hold us upright and allow us to bend, lift, twist and perform other movements. It’s very easy to strain a muscle or sprain a tendon or ligament when exercising, working or doing other basic activities.
While acute injuries should heal in a short period of time, repeated reinjuries or serious injuries can lead to chronic low back pain. This is why it is so important to rest and recover, even after a seemingly minor injury. Additionally, more serious injuries such as slip-and-falls or car accidents can result in chronic lower back pain, even when they don’t cause a fracture.
2. Arthritis of the Spine
The facet joints that link the vertebrae in the spinal column are subject to the same age-related breakdown as other joints in the body. Over time, the protective cartilage and connective tissue of these joints dries out and wears down. This leads to increased friction between the joints that causes the inflammation, stiffness and pain in the joints that is diagnosed as spinal arthritis.
Also called facet disease, spinal arthritis can also result in bone spurs due to the bone on bone contact between facet joints and swollen ligaments due to the inflammation. These and other problems can narrow the nerve pathways in the spinal column, resulting in radiating pain and nerve compression symptoms.
3. Degenerative disc disease
Degenerative disc disease (DDD) is similar to spinal arthritis, but it affects the spinal discs that cushion the vertebrae in the spinal column. The spinal discs are made of a tough outer layer of cartilage and a softer inner layer. Over time, the discs dry out and become thinner, making them less flexible and able to support the spine.
DDD can result in loss of disc height that makes the vertebrae rub together and narrows the nerve pathways in the spine, resulting in localized and radiating pain. Degenerative forces that affect the spinal discs can also make conditions like bulging and herniated discs more likely.
4. Bulging discs
A bulging disc occurs when the outer layer of a spinal disc weakens and begins to bulge out of its normal place in the spinal column. The discs in the lower spine are more likely to develop bulges due to the increased pressure they experience. A bulging disc is not necessarily painful by itself, but like other conditions, it can cause lower back pain and radiating symptoms as a result of nerve compression.
5. Herniated discs
A herniated disc happens when the softer inner material of the disc begins to push out through a weak spot, such as a crack or tear, in the tougher outer layer. Many herniated discs can start as a bulging disc and progress to partial or full herniation. The herniated inner disc material can irritate local nerves and also put pressure on the spinal cord and nerve roots that travel into the lower body, causing lower back pain and radiating symptoms such as sciatica.
Finding Lower Back Pain Relief
Has low back pain taken over your life? You don’t have to let it. Untreated back pain can progress with time, even leading to mobility problems and long-term nerve damage. When you take control of back pain treatment, you can improve your chances of getting your life back.
If you have exhausted basic treatments like over-the-counter medication, ice packs and heating pads, Physician Partners of America (PPOA) can help. The caring and dedicated PPOA team is committed to individualized back pain treatment plans that fit your needs and lifestyle. From interventional pain management options like epidural steroid injections to minimally invasive spine surgery, our expert team can help you develop an effective care plan for every stage of your treatment journey.
Contact us today and let us help you take your life back from chronic back pain.