7 Surprising Causes Of Back Pain

If your back is bugging you, it might be something in your everyday life that's causing the problem.

08/19/2015 07:27 am ET
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If it seems like everyone you know, including yourself, has back pain, you actually might be close to the truth.

"If you go on the street and pick a random group of people, 20 percent will say they have back pain right now, 40 percent will have had it in the past year, and 80 percent have had back pain over the course of their lives," says Patrick Roth, M.D., chairman of the department of neurosurgery at New Jersey's Hackensack University Medical Center and author of The End of Back Pain. That's a lot of back pain. 

The cause of all the discomfort? For people over 60, back pain often comes from spinal stenosis, or arthritic wear and tear. "As we age, the joints become enlarged and generate pain," says Dr. Roth. But that's not always the case. In many instances, the cause of back pain isn't as clear. 

One thing is for sure, there are certain things, like improperly lifting a heavy object, that can throw your back off and create pain. Here, seven other things that you might not know cause pain, but should be mindful of :

1. Smoking

Smoking can affect back pain in two ways. "Smoking has been show to decrease blood supply to the discs in the back, causing premature aging of discs," says Vijay Vad, M.D., an assistant attending physiatrist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. That premature aging of the discs can cause pain in the lower back, according to the study, which was conducted at John's Hopkins University. Another study from theNorthwestern University School of Medicine found a different smoking-back pain connection. According to that study, smoking affects the way the brain responds to back pain and makes people less resilient to it. 


2. Sitting

"There's no question that sitting puts pressure on the discs in your back," says Dr Roth. "The pressure decreases blood supply to the discs and increases the risk of disc injury," agrees Dr. Vad. If you're someone who sits at a desk all day, consider using a standing desk to alleviate the pressure on your back, or take breaks every 30 minutes or so to stretch and walk around. Walking can flush toxins and "brings nutrition to the discs," says Dr. Vad.


3. Stress

"The lower back is the ultimate example of the mind-body connection," says Dr. Vad. Stress can tighten your muscles and cause discs to bulge, creating pain. It can also lower your threshold for pain. "It literally stiffens you," says Dr. Roth. Manage your stress with exercise, meditation, and deep breathing.


4. Flying on a plane

The next time you fly, consider checking your heavy luggage instead of storing it overhead. "The pressurized air in the cabin can irritate a disc and make it vulnerable to bulging," says Dr. Vad. "So be careful lifting heavy luggage or heavy weights or doing vigorous sports right after a long flight." He suggests stretching and walking right after a flight to help minimize the risk of disc bulge.


5. Diet

It stands to reason that being overweight can put more pressure on your back and make you more susceptible to back pain. Onestudy from Stanford Universityfound that people who are extremely overweight are at four times greater risk of having lower back pain. The study also found that doing just 20 minutes of exercise a day can reduce the risk of back pain by 32 percent. 

Another part of your diet to pay attention to, according to Dr. Vad? Sugar. "Processed sugars can spike inflammation in the body and cause back pain," says Dr. Vad. So consider cutting back on big sugar offenders like cookies, doughnuts, cake, and other sweets.


6. Your mattress

If you're constantly waking up with back pain, it might be that your mattress is too soft. "A medium-firm mattress is ideal for your back," says Dr. Vad. With a soft mattress, the weight on your back can be uneven and cause you pain. 


7. Talking on a cell phone

Talking on your cell phone, especially if you use your shoulder to balance it at your ear, can create uneven pressure, causing neck pain. And that neck pain can extend to your back. Also be mindful if you text a lot—you're potentially straining your neck by looking down repeatedly. Opt for earphones when you talk on your cell, and cut down on texting or try to hold your phone in front of you when texting to reduce the strain on your neck.


If you do have back pain...

Though doctors used to recommend bedrest to help back pain, the thinking has changed. "There's no doubt that returning to activity as best you can is the best thing for back pain," says Dr. Roth. "Movement actually makes pain better." He also recommends doing exercise as well as you can, then when the pain has passed, strengthening your core and abdominal muscles, which help keep your back strong.

As for the best way to lift heavy objects? "You want to do a hip hinge rather than bend from the back," says Dr. Roth. Keep your knees slightly bent and your back locked. "Olympic weightlifters are the least likely to have back problems because they are so meticulous about their form," he says.  To learn how to properly lift an object click here. And keep in mind that you should use that technique no matter what you're picking up. "Many problems happen not when you're lifting the fridge, but when you're picking up a piece of paper on the floor and not paying attention," he says. 


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