If you suffer from chronic back pain, know that you’re not alone. In the United States alone, more than 65 million adults report suffering from some type of back pain throughout their lives. Of those 65 million, nearly 16 million will experience chronic, recurring back pain and as a result, are limited in certain everyday activities. While most people often think of chronic back pain as the result of a single event or injury, the reality is that a single event or injury isn’t usually to blame. Rather, there are several underlying conditions and external causes that can contribute to chronic back pain.
Avoiding back pain altogether is nearly impossible. However, some of the most common causes of chronic back pain are, for the most part, largely preventable. Below are four of the most common causes of chronic back pain, as well as what you can do to avoid them.
Muscle deconditioning, also known as muscle atrophy, is one of the most common causes of chronic back pain. This occurs when the muscles in your back lack the strength and stability to support you properly. Over time, this wear and tear caused by muscle deconditioning can lead to many different conditions, including chronic back pain.
Some level of muscle deconditioning is natural. As we age, our body changes and aches and pains become more common. The muscles in our backs are no exception to this. As we get older, we lose muscle strength and disc space within our spine. This, coupled with a lower level of physical activity are the two biggest contributors to chronic back pain related to aging.
If you have suffered a recent injury, or if you’re one of the millions of people who have transitioned to working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, then you’ve probably seen a decrease in the amount of physical activity you get every day. In the short term, avoiding physical activity is a great way to recover from an injury. However, too much inactivity can lead to muscle deconditioning. When this happens, the muscles in your back may no longer be able to support ligaments and vertebrae as they normally would, which can lead to chronic pain or make you more prone to injury.
Poor Posture or Body Mechanics
Perhaps one of the most preventable causes of chronic back pain is your posture. Whether you’re working an office job that requires hours of sitting, or you frequently lift heavy objects, having the right posture and body mechanics can help prevent injury and chronic back pain.
Poor posture can put added stress on your spine and strain the soft tissues surrounding your vertebrae. Over time, this repeated stress can cause the structural components of your spine to break down. For those working from home or in an office, sitting at your desk for long periods without standing or stretching can cause the hip flexors to tighten. Over time this tightening of the muscles can cause the hips and hamstrings to weaken, which can lead to lower back pain.
If you notice yourself hunching over your keyboard throughout the day, you may be developing kyphosis. This excessive curving of the spine is often associated with chronic back pain and can be easily prevented by improving your posture.
Having proper body mechanics is another great way to prevent injury and chronic pain. Body mechanics refers to the way you hold your body when you move around. Proper body mechanics help you avoid muscle fatigue and injuries as you walk, bend over, lift objects, or perform other activities of daily living. A good way to think of body mechanics is having good posture in motion.
Things like lifting with your knees, standing with your feet apart, and avoiding twisting or bending at the waist are all great body mechanics to practice. Ensuring that you practice proper body mechanics can help prevent injuries, and help you stave off chronic back pain.
Bulging or Ruptured Disks
Bulging or ruptured, also known as herniated, disks are another common cause of chronic back pain. Each year, over 6.5 million people in the United States experience a herniated disk. A herniated disc refers to an injury sustained to one of the rubbery cushions (disks) that sit between the individual bones (vertebrae) that stack to make your spine. These disks act as a buffer between the vertebrae, allowing you to bend and move with ease. When one of these disks tears or is injured, it’s called a herniated disk.
The disks in your back have a soft, gel-like center and a firm outer layer. Over time, this outer layer can weaken, and can eventually crack. A herniated disk happens when the inner layer of the disk pushes through the outer layer. This “leak” may press on nearby spinal nerves, which can lead to serious lower back pain.
Several factors can contribute to a herniated disk, those include:
- Repetitive motions
- Sudden strain from improper lifting or twisting
Typically, pain related to a herniated disk will subside with time. Doctors will typically advise you to limit your physical activity, and get plenty of rest. You should see a doctor if your symptoms last more than six weeks, you notice tingling, numbness, or loss of strength in your arms, hands, legs, or feet, or you have difficulty standing or walking.
Another common cause of chronic back pain is osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis among older people, and it is one of the most frequent causes of physical disability among older adults. Osteoarthritis occurs when cartilage, the tissue that cushions the ends of the bones within the joints, breaks down and wears away. In some cases, all of the cartilage may wear away, leaving bones that rub up against each other. Osteoarthritis most commonly affects the hands, lower back, neck, and weight-bearing joints such as knees, hips, and feet.
Researchers believe that osteoarthritis is caused by a combination of factors within the body and the environment. Osteoarthritis is often referred to as the wear and tear disease, as it usually develops in elderly individuals.
Factors that increase your risk for osteoarthritis include:
- Age. Your risk of developing osteoarthritis increases with age, with most cases being diagnosed over age 60.
- Sex. Women are more likely to develop osteoarthritis, although it isn’t clear why
- Previous injuries to joints
- Repeated stress on joints
It’s important to remember that back pain can be caused by many different factors and conditions. While preventing things like sudden injuries or conditions like osteoarthritis is nearly impossible, there are several ways you can reduce your risk of developing chronic back pain. Practice good posture when sitting or standing, lessen the amount of stress you put on your joints, and ensure you get enough physical activity each day. All of these together can help you live a happier, more pain-free life.
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