Up to 80 percent of U.S. adults suffer from back pain at some point in their lives, according to the American Chiropractic Association. And when your back hurts, the first thing on your mind is how to feel better fast.
Pinpointing the exact location of your back pain can help you work out the cause, because different types of pain can affect different parts of the back. And determining the culprit can lead you to the right treatment and feeling better sooner.
Common Types of Back Pain
When you overdo it —whether during everyday activities, vigorous exercise, or playing sports —your back can suffer. It’s possible to sprain or strain your back, or even cause a disk (one of the cushions between your vertebrae) to pop out of place and press on a nerve, a condition known as a herniated or bulging disk.
Depending on the mechanics of the activity that caused your injury, any part of your back can be affected, causing left back pain, right back pain, upper back pain, or lower back pain. And sometimes it's not just your back that hurts —your groin or legs and feet can feel the pain, too. Classic types of back pain include:
- Back strains and sprains. While a sprain or strain can affect any part of the back, this type of injury typically causes pain that gets worse with movement. Other symptoms include muscle cramping, sudden uncontrollable muscle spasms, and difficulty standing, walking, or bending forward or sideways. According to the Association of Neurological Surgeons, muscle strains and sprains are the most common causes of low back pain. This type of pain usually lasts no longer than two weeks.
- Acute back pain. This is short-term pain that’s usually caused by some sort of injury to the back — from playing sports or working around the house, or from a sudden jolt such as a fall or a car accident. Arthritis also can cause acute back pain. Symptoms typically last from a few days to a few weeks. The most common kind of acute back pain is mechanical, which means it begins in the bones, ligaments, disks, membranes, or joints of the back. As with sprains and strains, you can feel this type of pain throughout your back, depending on where the injury occurs. If you have mechanical back pain, you may also experience muscle spasms in your lower back when you try to lift something heavy or move your back more than usual.
- Sciatica. The sciatic nerve runs down the backs of both your legs. Sometimes, parts of the sciatic nerve can get irritated or compressed, causing a type of pain known as sciatica. Sciatica typically begins in your lower spine and radiates down to your buttocks and the back of one of your legs. “The most common reason for this is a bulging or herniated disk,” says Allyson Shrikhande, MD, a physiatrist at New York Bone and Joint Specialists in New York City. Sciatica can cause a range of other symptoms, from a mild ache to extreme discomfort. Coughing or sneezing can make sciatica symptoms worse, as can sitting in one position for a long time. Other symptoms, like numbness, muscle weakness, or a tingling sensation in the leg or foot are also common with sciatica. A review of scientific studies published in 2014 in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that being overweight or obese were risk factors for developing this type of back pain.
When to See Your Doctor About Back Pain
Some back pain symptoms—and the location of these symptoms —are cause for greater concern. Although rare, back pain can be a symptom of a more serious medical condition, and you should seek medical attention promptly if:
- You have back pain that spreads down your legs, especially if it spreads below your knee. This could be a sign that you have a bulging or herniated disk.
- Your legs are weak, numb, or tingling. This means that there is involvement of the nerves and requires immediate attention.
- You have new bowel or bladder problems. This could signal a serious problem called cauda equina syndrome, a rare disorder that affects the bundle of nerves at the base of your spine and requires emergency medical attention.
- You have blood in your urine. This may be a sign of kidney stones. Kidney stones can cause sharp back pain that may become worse during urination. The pain is usually on one side.
- You have a fever or abdominal pain. This could be a sign of an infection or a condition that requires surgery, such as appendicitis. Infections of the vertebrae, disks, or even the pelvis or bladder can also cause back pain.
- You have had a fall or an injury to your back. Your doctor should evaluate you after any new injuries.
- You have been losing weight and can't explain why. This could be a sign of cancer of the colon, rectum, or ovaries.
- The pain is a deep, dull ache in one specific spot over a bone, or it is continuous, even when you lie down and at night. These could be a sign of a tumor in the bone.