Figuring out the cause of back pain is simple, right? You lift something wrong, you hurt your back. Simple.
Yeah, sorry. It’s not that easy.
One of the main reasons it’s so hard to get rid of back pain is because it’s fairly hard to narrow down a cause.
(The other reason it’s hard to get rid of back pain is because a lot of people are looking for a quick fix to a chronic problem but I’ll save that for another blog post.)
Many of us are familiar with common causes of back pain. Like I mentioned above, lifting something that is too heavy or with bad mechanics will definitely hurt your back.
Some other common reasons for back pain can include a herniated disc or arthritis in the spine.
But, what if none of these apply to you? Maybe your back pain is being caused by one of the following.
Okay, I’ll admit sitting may not be that surprising. There has been a lot written online and in the media lately about the adverse effects of sitting on your health.
Since it’s such a big deal, though, I figure it’s worth mentioning again. Check out this infographic from JustStand.org. It has some pretty alarming stats when it comes to sitting.
Sitting can cause back pain in a couple of ways. First, when you sit you are putting more pressure on your disc (those squishy things between your vertebra in your spine).
Your disc is primarily made of fluid so when you increase the pressure, it will start to bulge outward.
This can weaken the disc and lead to a herniation.
This is why sitting can increase your pain when you have a disc herniation or sciatica because it pushes more of the disc out away from the spine and into the spinal nerves as they leave the spinal column.
One of the other ways that sitting can cause back pain is that it can lead to weak core muscles.
Most people hear “core” and automatically think “abs”. That’s not what I’m talking about. Core muscles include more than just that “6-pack” muscle (called the rectus abdominus).
Your core muscles consist of a number of muscles (you can find a good summary here) that are much more important than making you look good in a swimsuit. Your core’s job is to help transmit force from the lower body to the upper body and to support/protect the spine.
What Do You Do About It?
A principle that we’re all familiar with is “use it or lose it”. When you sit all day, you’re not using those core muscles, at least not very much.
Just like all other muscles in your body, if your core muscles are not challenged they become weaker. Weak core muscles don’t support the spine and make you more susceptible to injury.
Most patients that I see in my office that are having low back pain, have a weak core. There are a number of core strengthening programs online like this one from the Mayo Clinic. Find one that works for you and make it part of your daily routine.
Other regular exercises, like walking, swimming, cycling or yoga, will help to keep you up and moving versus crashing on the couch and binge-watching Netflix.
Another strategy I incorporate with my patients is to encourage them to set a timer on their phone for every 45 minutes and get up and move around when it goes off.
If you work requires you to sit and work on a computer all day, getting up and moving is essential to staying healthy.
This one might not be as surprising as well but, like sitting, it has such a large, negative impact on your back and health it is worth talking about.
Plus, when was the last time your family doctor had a good long talk with you about weight if that is something you’ve been struggling with?
Unfortunately, our current medical system doesn’t afford many primary care physicians the time to talk with patients about weight loss and healthy living.
Or, because it is such a sensitive subject and patients can get defensive, some doctors choose not to bring it up.
If you are carrying around a few extra pounds (or more than a few), you need to realize you can’t escape physics.
You can’t apply increased forces to a structure that isn’t equipped to handle it without some negative side effects.
I’m not going to go on about everything that excess weight can do to your body but I do want to point out a couple of things.
First, extra weight will put more strain on your feet. More weight will compress the space between your joints and can lead to osteoarthritis.
That weight can also decrease the arches in your feet. This is why overweight individuals are more likely to develop plantar fasciitis.
When your feet start to flatten out, it will have effects that travel up your leg into your hips and back that can lead to pain.
I’ve had patients with low back pain that didn’t respond to regular treatment but as soon as they got some orthotics, their back pain went away.
The other thing I want to point out about being overweight is when you carry extra weight in your stomach, it will increase the curve in your lumbar spine.
I’m mainly talking to the males here (although pregnant women suffer from the same thing, they have an excuse for having a tummy like that).
If you take a look at the picture above, you can see the increase in the angle on the spine. That puts a lot of stress on the joints at the back part of the spinal column and on the discs.
It also changes the way your spine absorbs the impact of walking. All these things can lead to more long-term spinal problems. Just because your back isn’t hurting right now, doesn’t mean your spine isn’t being damaged.
Your body will do its best to adapt until it can’t anymore and that’s when you start to feel pain. So, pain or lack thereof is a pretty bad indicator of health.
What Do You Do About It?
The answer is kind of obvious, you need to lose some weight if this applies to you. Now, just because the answer is obvious it doesn’t mean it’s easy and I understand that.
I could write another lengthy post about weight loss, diet, and exercise. For now, the advice I would give to you is to find healthy eating habits and exercise that resonate with you and do that.
The best diet and the best type of exercise are the ones you’ll actually do. If you’d like some help getting started in that area, I’d encourage you to get my ebook, 12 Steps To Improving Your Health.
It will help get the ball rolling for you.
#3 Vitamin D Deficiency
Vitamin D is a vitamin that your body actually makes on its own when your skin is exposed to the sun.
The problem here is we don’t get outside much anymore (see #1 and #2). If we do go outside, we generally are wearing clothes because we don’t want to be arrested.
Most of the time, only our arms and legs are exposed to the sun, and that’s just in the summer.
Unless you’re this guy…
Again, I’m not advocating for a nudist movement, just pointing out the “rules” we have to work with.
Another reason we don’t seem to get enough Vit. D is that our recommended levels are too low.
Every few years, the Institutes of Medicine (IOM) put out a recommended daily allowance (RDA) for certain nutrients, like Vit. D.
Their latest recommendation states that adults need 600 IU (international units) per day but this has been contested, with some saying the recommendation should be as high as 7,000 IU/day from all sources (1, 2, 3).
Given that your body can produce anywhere from 10,000-25,000 IU, depending on skin color, time of year, and location, after only about 15 minutes of sun exposure, I’m more inclined to believe we need more than 600 IU a day.
What Does Vitamin D Have To Do With Back Pain?
There is a somewhat lengthy biochemical process that explains how a lack of Vit. D would result in back pain or general musculoskeletal pain that I won’t bore you with. (If you’re really want to know, email me)
How Do You Know If You’re Deficient?
There is a simple blood test that can be done to test the level of Vit D in your body.
Again, the IOM recommendation is pretty low at 20 ng/ml. Your level should be more along the lines of over 40 ng/ml to be optimal.
So if you do decide to get tested, make sure you take a look at the actual number on your lab test. Your result may read “normal” but can still be below optimal.
What Do You Do About It?
The first way to increase our Vit D level is to get more sun. The second best way is through supplementation.
Vit. D supplements are fairly affordable and can help meet your need. They will typically range from a 1,000 I.U. dose to a 5,000 I.U. dose. If you have a diagnosed deficiency, then your doctor may prescribe a much larger dose.
A word of warning about Vit. D supplements. Many people think that “more is better” so if one pill is good for me, why not take three or four?
Vit D is a fat-soluble vitamin which means what your body doesn’t use can be stored in your fat cells until it’s needed. If you take too much, then you can be at risk for some adverse reactions.
The risk of that is really low. You’d have to take a very large amount over a long period of time.
So if you get a supplement, don’t get carried away and try to take the whole bottle over a couple days. It’s not going to turn you into Super(wo)man.
There are certain foods that contain Vit D but not in sufficient quantities to make a difference if you are deficient…unless you’re really into cod liver oil, yum!
One last thing about Vit D supplementation, you typically won’t feel an immediate improvement. You have to take it consistently over consecutive days to allow it to build up in your system before you start to notice the effects.
If you’ve dealt with chronic pain before or know someone that has, you know that it can lead to feelings of depression or anxiety, but did you know your mental state can cause back pain?
Have you ever noticed a lot of pain and tightness in your shoulders and neck after a particularly tough day at work?
That’s a common complaint I get in my office. Patients will say, “I carry all my stress in my shoulders.”
There is nothing that says you have to “carry” your stress only in your shoulders. There’s not a special, stress-carrying pouch built into your upper traps.
The science behind this isn’t perfectly clear just yet. There is some speculation that increased stress will cause an increase in certain chemicals in your body that are known to cause pain.
Another theory is that being stressed all the time can put you into a “fight-or-flight” mode which can reduce blood flow to certain areas of the body. When that happens, those areas are not receiving as much oxygen as they should which can lead to pain.
One of the best-selling books about back pain on Amazon, called Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection by Dr. John Sarno, MD theorizes that people suffer from what he calls Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS).
In it, he basically states that TMS is caused by repressed anger or emotions and if you can correct those feelings, you’ll be able to heal your back pain.
Again, these are just theories. What we do know is that while the actual cause is in your head, the symptoms are very real and shouldn’t be dismissed.
This type of back pain is some of the hardest to diagnose because reproducing the symptoms is obviously very difficult because no particular activity usually causes the pain to increase.
If you have back pain that doesn’t hurt worse with certain movements, feels very general as in you couldn’t put a finger on a particular spot that hurts the most, and you’ve been experiencing large amounts of stress i.e. trouble at work or home, significant life changes like death of a loved one, lost a job, moved to a new city, then this may be psychological back pain.
What Do You Do About It?
The first thing I’d recommend is getting examined by someone that specializes in back pain, like a chiropractor (Who’d you think I was going to recommend?).
It’s important to rule out other potential causes of your back pain and make sure it’s not something more serious or a mechanical problem.
If it is determined to be stress-related, then we need to look at the where all your stress is coming from and try to eliminate it…and no, that doesn’t mean you can give your kids away.
Is your job particularly stressful? If so, then you need to consider a career change. No job or amount of money is worth sacrificing your health for.
One of the best treatments for stress is exercise. Making exercise a regular part of your day will not only help decrease your stress but will also improve your health in general.
You don’t have to train for a marathon either. You can just go for a walk every day on your lunch break or in the evening after dinner. Whatever works. Don’t over-complicate it.
If need be, seek professional help. Find a mental health professional that can give you strategies to overcome the stress that you are dealing with.
#5 Magnesium Deficiency
Magnesium is a mineral that you (should) get from your diet that’s involved with hundreds of chemical processes in your body.
Unfortunately, most people that consume a typical Western diet, low fruits and veggies, lots of fat, lots of sugar, don’t get enough magnesium through their food sources.
Since magnesium is involved in so many different functions in the body, there are a few ways that it can lead to not only back pain, but general body pain as well.
What Does Magnesium Have To Do With Back Pain?
One of the better-known ways that magnesium can result in some back pain has to do with magnesium’s role in muscle function.
Magnesium is important in helping your muscles to relax after it is contracted. When you flex a muscle in your body, there’s a lot that happens in a split second.
I won’t bog you down with the details but If you don’t have enough magnesium, your body is going to have some trouble relaxing your muscles.
So if you experience a lot of muscles spasms or trigger points, then you might fall under this category.
The other ways that magnesium can help improve your pain are not as well understood.
A few different ideas are that low magnesium can interfere with energy production which can lead to fatigue, depression, and chronic pain or that it can block a particular type of pain receptor so if there isn’t enough, you’re more sensitive to pain.
Regardless, there is plenty of evidence out there that suggests that magnesium can be involved in different aches and pains.
Not only is low magnesium indicated in pain but low levels have also been linked to cardiovascular disease, migraines, osteoporosis, diabetes, and anxiety.
It’s kind of important, don’t you think?
What Do You Do About It?
If you just have to know if you’re deficient, you can have a blood test done but I think a better strategy would be to improve your diet and see if you feel better.
Unlike Vit. D, there are plenty of food sources that contain magnesium.
Here’s a good chart from DrAxe.com
There are magnesium supplements available as well but you have to be careful when taking them. Too much magnesium can lead to diarrhea (a form of magnesium is the main ingredient in Milk of Magnesia, a common constipation treatment).
If you do decide to take a supplement, you should start with a smaller dose and slowly increase over a few weeks until you notice a change in your bowel movements, then decrease your dose again.
Again, the best strategy is to get it naturally through your diet. Your body was meant to get its nutrients through your food.
Disclaimer time; this post is just for informational purposes and is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice from a healthcare provider.
Back pain is a complicated problem so regardless if you feel that one of the above items describes you, I highly encourage being examined by a healthcare practitioner that specializes in back pain.
I hope that you learned something from this post and that it helped you in some way. If it did, give us a “thumbs up” and share it with someone you think can learn from it too.