15 Reasons Why Your Back Hurts
Did the title of this article just give you the urge to stretch or massage your lower back? Maybe you’re shifting around in your chair, trying to make your position more comfortable. If you’re a yogi, you might currently be in child’s pose on the floor. (Once you’re done, please come back and continue reading!)
Back pain is incredibly common. In the US, 31 million people are sufferers, and worldwide, back pain is the number one cause of disability and one of the top reasons cited for missing work.
But what actually causes back pain? Well, it turns out that there are many causes, so let’s dig in:
1. Too Much Time Spent On Your Tush
As computers have slowly crept in and taken over our lives, they have also changed the nature of work – and in the context of this article, how we perform our work. The reality for a large proportion of us is that we are seated during our 9-5’s, with little reprieve save heading to the loo or running out to grab a cup of coffee. Many of us aren’t even getting up from our desks for lunch!
The act of sitting puts a lot of force on our lower backs (in the “lumbar” section of our spines) and causes compression in this area. Scientists have found that over time, those who sit straight or lean slightly forward (i.e. 90˚ or less between the torso and the top of the thighs) are also at risk for degeneration of the discs in the lower back. A more open posture, where your chair supports, and allows you to lean slightly back, is preferred.
Having an ergonomist assess your workstation can be a huge help if that’s available to you at your workplace.
2. A Sedentary Existence
To piggyback (ha!) on the previous reason, too much sitting = not enough moving, which also equates to back pain.
When we aren’t moving, our muscles begin to stiffen, shorten and become weaker. When this happens to the muscles of our back, we are susceptible to injury. When muscles shorten in this area, the spine can become misaligned and pinch down on the discs or nerves, causing severe pain.
So, help yourself and your back by getting up every hour and moving for at least 3-5 minutes. Stretches, a set of stairs, or walking over to your colleague to chat rather than sending an email all help! Remember: motion is lotion.
3. Shortened Hamstrings
In addition to affecting the muscles in the back, extended periods of sitting also causes the muscles on the backs of our thighs, called the hamstrings, to shorten.
This muscle group is actually made up of 3 smaller muscles, which attach to your pelvis and on either side of your knee. Your hamstrings are responsible for flexion of the lower leg (i.e. they contract/shorten to bring your foot up towards your bum) and extension of the hip (i.e. pulling your thigh backwards).
When we sit for long periods of time (where the hamstrings are in a constant state of flexion) the muscles start to shrink, pulling the pelvis out of alignment and altering the natural curve of the lumbar spine. Ouch!
4. A Weak Core
If you aren’t scared into getting out of your chair more often by now, here’s another thing that being constantly seated causes: a weak core. The muscles which make up your core go far beyond giving you those much-coveted washboard abs. For those of you who are unfamiliar, your core is responsible for you being able to stand, sit up, balance, walk, lift, bend, twist, and the list goes on.
The core muscles extend from your head down to your pelvis and include basically very muscle in between, except those in your arms. Your core’s main job is to keep you upright. However, when you’re seated for extended periods of time, these muscles no longer need to work very hard, because the chair has taken over supporting you. A weakened core equates to an unstable, misaligned spine and pelvis, and obviously, an unhappy back.
5. Carrying Too Much Weight
We don’t mean schlepping too many heavy bags here, although that can most certainly bugger up your back. We’re talking too many L-B’s, especially in the midsection.
It’s a known fact our medical community doesn’t like us to carry much weight around our waistlines, as this is indicative of further health problems down the road. (Look up “Metabolic Syndrome” if you want more info.) But boasting too many inches out front also causes a forward pulling force in the lower torso, exaggerating the natural curve of the lower back. This change in shape results the muscles, tendons, nerves and discs in lumbar spine to be constricted due to lack of space and ultimately puts us at risk for injury and pain.
6. Your Obsession With Tech
The last “structural” reason to be discussed regarding back pain is our culture’s love affair with our tech gadgets.
When we look down, the forward dropping of our heads creates a whole host of unnatural forces pulling on our necks and upper back. And since the human body is so interconnected, the misalignment of the upper portion of our spine causes the rest of the back to follow suit as a means to compensate and keep us balanced.
As you have learned already in this article, misalignment = aches and pains. So, help yourself and your spine and either spend less time looking at your devices and/or when you do, raise them up to meet your gaze.
In addition to headaches, upset stomachs, and shoulder pain, stress can also mess up our backs.
In the past, our “dangers” used to equate to animals wanting to eat us. When our brains caught wind of a hungry animal in the vicinity, they would kick on the fight or flight response. The adrenaline produced by this response allowed us to either book it to freedom or engage in potentially mortal combat.
In modern times, most of us don’t have to worry about being eaten by tigers. However, our brain still turns on this response when we’re in a stressful situation. So, instead of our glutes, quads and hamstrings burning off the pent-up energy by running or fighting, we stay seated, leaving our muscles at-the-ready for nothing.
Over time, this unreleased tension causes tight, sore muscles, especially in our hips and low back, also putting us at risk for injury.
It’s understandable that one’s emotions can be negatively and vastly affected by chronic pain, but researchers are starting to see a link in the opposite direction. Scientists from the University of Alberta studied 800 adults without pain issues and discovered that those who suffered from depression were “four times as likely to develop intense or disabling neck and low back pain” when compared to those without depression.
A different study replicates these results, but the reason for the link between the two still seems to be unclear at this time.
9. A Herniated Disc
If any of you have experienced what it’s like to have a disc herniation, reading this “reason” likely made you shudder. They’re incredibly painful.
For those of you who are unaware, discs are found in your spinal column, acting as a cushion between the vertebrae. They are made up of a fibrous outer ring and have a jelly-like inner center (the nucleus pulposus) which acts as a shock-absorber.
Discs move along with your spine as you twist and bend, but when certain actions are repeated extensively (especially twisting), or there is an injury present, the fibrous ring becomes worn and the nucleus pulposus begins to swell outwards. If this bulge presses against a nerve, an immense amount of pain can occur, as well as tingling and numbness in the tissues the nerve innervates.
Herniated or bulging discs must be treated by a professional, as the healing process can be quite challenging.
10. High Heels
See this Healthversed article to learn how heels affect your posture and your body’s overall alignment. The short version is, heels are terrible for your body and create pain and muscle soreness in your back.
It’s also worth noting that heels aren’t the only culprits. Any type of ill-fitting shoes has the potential to throw your body out of whack.
When we think of osteoarthritis, many of us might think of painful hands or knees, but the disease characterized by the disintegration of the body’s cartilage can affect any of the bones in our bodies, backs included.
In our spines, there are many articulating surfaces (also known as “joints”) between our vertebrae themselves, as well as with the rib bones. When osteoarthritis occurs in these places, the neck and back can become quite stiff and painful. When the disease progresses further, small bone spurs can grow, which can exacerbate issues further.
12. Spinal Stenosis
As we know, the spinal cord is protected and fully encased by the bones which make up our spinal column and these bones are held together by ligaments and muscles. The vertebral foramen, also known as the spinal canal, is the hole in the vertebrae through which the spinal cord travels.
As we age, ligaments throughout our bodies have the tendency to thicken, which also occurs in the spine and can slowly decrease the size of the vertebral foramen. The bone spurs mentioned previously can also create this same effect, both of which cause pinching and pain.
13. Sleep Positions
It is said that we will spend 1/3 of our lives sleeping, so it’s important to do it properly! When it comes to keeping your back comfortable, it’s important to keep the spine in a neutral alignment.
For those of you who sleep on your stomachs, listen up! When we are face-down on the bed, gravity pulls down on the spine, creating an exaggerated curve in the lower back (see reason 5 as reminder for why this is bad). Health experts advise that sleeping on our backs or sides is preferable, on a firm, supportive mattress.
If you happen to be a smoker, here is another reason to quit: smokers have a 300% greater incidence of experiencing chronic lower back pain! Studies have shown that nicotine enhances brain circuitry associated with pain – meaning that smokers are more sensitive to pain throughout their bodies.
As well, the chemicals found in cigarettes and cigars cause damage to the body’s vascular system, meaning that over time, the ability of our blood vessels to transport the nutrients and oxygen to our tissues is decreased. When it comes to our backs, this damages the connective tissues, especially the discs, and causes lumbar spondylosis, also known as degeneration.
15. Something More Worrisome
The reasons listed in this article outline structural issues with the spine, or things which can lead to misalignment. But if you have back pain and a history of cancer, fever, unexplained weight loss, loss of bowel or bladder control, or numbness and tingling, please seek professional help immediately. These symptoms might be indicative of something more serious.
Lauren Brown MSc. WWHP, is a certified Health & Wellness Coach who loves teaching about all facets of health and wellbeing. Much of her time is spent in workplaces, helping empower employees to get healthy through the wellness programming initiatives and educational sessions she delivers. Please see www.inspiringhealth.ca for more information.