- You’re stressed out. It might not be a surprise to learn that stress can cause tight muscles and knots in your neck and upper back, which can definitely hurt. But anxiety might also cause you to have back spasms, says Ada Stewart, MD, a family physician with the Eau Claire Cooperative Health Centers in Columbia, South Carolina, and a member of the board of directors of the American Academy of Family Physicians. More bad news: Once you have some back pain, ruminating about it could make the ache even worse. If you suspect that stress is literally hurting you, try to work some relaxation techniques into your routine. And at least one study has found that weekly yoga or intensive stretching helps reduce low back pain.
- You’re addicted to technology. “Hunching over a phone or tablet for several hours a day can cause what we refer to as ‘text neck,'” says Scott Gallant, a physical therapist and spine specialty program manager for Athletico. “Having a slumped neck and rounded shoulders puts an additional 60 pounds of weight on your spine and can inadvertently change your posture and cause back pain.” If you simply can’t disconnect, try keeping your phone at eye level.
- You’re not sitting properly. As with constantly clutching a smartphone, being tied to your desk will make your spine pretty unhappy. “Poor posture can cause low back pain by increasing the amount of pressure or tension put on bones, joints, ligaments, and intervertebral discs,” says Stacey Pierce-Talsma, DO, chair and associate professor of the Osteopathic Manipulative Medicine Department at Touro University in California. Quitting your desk job probably isn’t an option, but you can improve your form: Keep your forearms parallel to the floor, head in line with your torso, feet flat on the floor or on a footrest, back fully supported, and thighs parallel to the floor, according to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration.
- You just had a baby. Of course you already know that, but you might not realize that your tiny bundle of joy is messing with your back. “Almost 80% of new moms suffer lower back pain as a result of the stress placed on the body during pregnancy coupled with habits resulting from caring for a young baby,” Gallant says. “For example, holding a baby on only one side of the body and hunching over while nursing leads to muscle imbalances, which affects the natural curve of the spine.” If you’re a new mother, try to be aware of maintaining good posture and alternating muscle groups so you’re not constantly rocking/swaying/bouncing on one side only.
- You have a muscle imbalance elsewhere in your body. Everything is inter-connected, and your back pain just might be stemming from tight hamstrings or weak abdominals. (Want to strengthen your core muscles and flatten your belly? The simple plan in Fit in 10: Slim and Strong for Life can help you get there.) If other muscle groups are off, it can mess with your overall mechanics and “cause the muscles of the back to do more work than they should to keep the spine upright or moving correctly,” says Robert Herbst, a personal trainer, coach, and power-lifter in Larchmont, New York. You may need to work with a physical therapist to ID and correct the specific imbalances that are over-taxing your back.
- You have a bulging or ruptured disk. The disks between your vertebrae help cushion the spine and act as shock-absorbers, but over time they can flatten or rupture due to natural aging, certain movements, or a family history of disk disease. This doesn’t always cause pain, but when it does, it can be hugely uncomfortable. When a bulging disk is the culprit, doctors often start with over-the-counter medication, hot and cold packs, and physical therapy.
- Something much more serious is going on. Pancreatitis, ulcers, or even a kidney infection could cause pain that radiates into the back. Cancer can also cause back pain. “You can also end up having an infection, osteomyelitis, which is an infection of the spine,” Stewart says. Most types of back pain resolve on their own within six weeks, so if yours hasn’t—or it’s getting worse—it’s probably time to see a physician. (Here are 10 symptoms that warrant a trip to the ER.) Other red flags include fever, numbness in the rectal area, and loss of bowel or bladder control. You should also see a doc if your spine is particularly tender in certain spots, or if you’ve fallen or had some kind of trauma. “Or if you cannot move, then you really need to go see a doctor,” Stewart says.
Helpful Stretching Exercises
Stretching of the joints, muscles, and nerves are very important to ensure that there are no imbalances throughout the musculoskeletal system. Decreased flexibility in any of these areas may lead to lower back pain. Not all of these stretches may be appropriate for everyone. A stretch should not induce painful symptoms. Rather, a stretch should feel relieving to the lower back and may even help to reduce any symptoms.