Back pain is a massive health concern that is often ignored or mistreated. An article published in The Economist noted that back pain is the leading cause of disability in most countries, whether rich or poor.
Back pain is a common cause of absence from work. When you have back pain, almost everything comes to a standstill. It can leave you bedridden for days on end. An aching back can affect everything from the way you walk, sit, stand, and the digestive, endocrine or neurovascular systems.
Back pain often strikes people in the middle age and keeps developing on and off into old age. Although it can initially seem like a trivial issue, statistics show that back pain is the main reason why Europeans drop out of work. It is also one of the leading reasons why Americans get hooked on opioids.
Back pain often develops without a cause that can be determined with a test or imaging study. And even when the cause of back pain is correctly diagnosed, it does not necessarily mean that the course of treatment is clear. Finding the right treatment for back pain is often a process of trial and error.
That said, here are some of the main causes of unexplained back pain:
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Carrying extra weight is one of the leading causes of back pain, according to experts. A 2010 review published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that there was a direct link between increased risk of back pain and increases in body mass index (BMI). The study found that the risk of back pain among adults who were extremely obese is four times greater than among normal-weight adults.
That is because your body is forced to support more weight than it was built for. This takes a toll on your muscles and joints and might frequently lead to back pain. Being obese or overweight also destabilizes your natural centre of gravity, which means more stress on your back.
Fix it: Make efforts to lose weight through eating a healthy, balanced diet and having regular exercise. To avoid straining your back even further while exercising, start with low-impact exercises such as swimming, walking, cycling, and dancing.
Having sleep issues
If you frequently suffer from back pain, the culprit might be your mattress. A mattress that is too soft, misshapen, or too hard can misalign your spine when you’re sleeping. A mattress that is too hard can push your pressure points while a soft mattress encourages poor posture while you’re sleeping, which can lead to misalignment and pain.
Conditions such as sleep apnea can also cause back pain. Research has shown a bi-directional relationship between poor sleep and back pain. According to the Laser Spine Institute, nearly two-thirds of adults living with back pain report having trouble sleeping. While it is understandable that you will have a hard time sleeping when your back is hurting, researchers have found that insomnia only makes the symptoms of back pain worse.
Fix it: Go for a mattress that is medium-firm instead. You will know that the mattress is just right if it makes you feel like you’re floating on air. A good mattress doesn’t come cheap but it will be a worthy purchase. After all, you spend 7 to 9 hours lying on your mattress each night.
For sleep conditions such as sleep apnea, consult an occupational therapist on any changes you can make to ensure better sleep. Have a calming bedtime routine, establish a regular bedtime, and turn off all the lights before going to bed.
Having a weak core
If you spend all day sitting behind a desk, chances are that you have little opportunity to exercise. Therefore, you probably have weak core muscles and a tendency to slouch – which leads to back pain. A 2018 study from the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center published in the Journal of Biomechanics found that the primary cause of chronic back pain in runners is weak core muscles.
Abdominal muscles work in conjunction with back muscles when performing movements such as bending, straightening, and lifting. Even when you’re sitting or standing, your back and abdominal muscles are working to hold you up and keep everything in its place. If you have neglected the strengthening of your core muscles, you are more likely to experience back pain.
Fix it: You don’t have to have a flat tummy or visible rock-hard abs to have a strong core. Instead of focusing on a flat tummy, focus on exercises that force you to hold your body in places – such as planks and abdominal crunches. However, make sure that you always maintain the correct form because doing planks incorrectly can exacerbate back pain.
When sitting or walking, always maintain proper posture, with your shoulders pushed back and your abdomen engaged.
Smoking is a very bad habit that is also to blame for the increased risk of back pain. A 2016 study that involved 34,000 adults in the US found that back pain ramped up with smoking. This isn’t surprising when you consider that smoking has harmful effects all over the body, including damaging blood vessels. Damaged arteries in the spine can end up causing back pain and loss of function.
Fix It: Nicotine is a highly addictive drug, which makes smoking one of the most difficult habits to break. However, it is totally worth the effort. Research and come up with a plan of action to drop the habit. Getting medical help and therapy might help make the process a little easier.
Having spinal or muscle problems
In some cases, mechanical issues such as osteoarthritis or a herniated disc in your spine can explain chronic back pain. This is especially common in middle-aged people and seniors. Muscular disorders such as fibromyalgia (a condition that leads to widespread unexplained pain, tenderness, and fatigue) can also lead to back pain.
Fix It: In most cases, doctors will prescribe pain killers to patients with this kind of back pain. Alternative solutions such as heat therapy and physiotherapy are also helpful. Exercise, pain killers, and antidepressants can help relieve symptoms of fibromyalgia.