Definition of back pain
Your spine is a column of more than 30 bones (vertebrae) held together by muscles, tendons and ligaments and cushioned by shock-absorbing disks. A problem in any part of your spine can cause back pain. For some people, back pain is simply an annoyance. For others, it can be both excruciating and disabling.
Most back pain — even severe back pain — goes away on its own in two to four weeks. Surgery is rarely needed for back pain and is generally considered only as a last resort.
Causes of back pain
A common cause of back pain is injury to a muscle (strain) or ligament (sprain). Strains and sprains can occur for many reasons, including improper lifting, poor posture and lack of regular exercise. Being overweight may increase your risk of strains and sprains affecting your back.
Back pain can also result from more-serious injuries, such as a vertebral fracture or ruptured disk; from arthritis and other age-related changes in your spine; and from certain infections.
Possible causes of back pain include:
- Ankylosing spondylitis
- Herniated disk
- Kidney infection
- Paget’s disease of bone
- Poor posture
- Spinal fractures (especially in older adults)
- Spinal stenosis
- Sprains and strains
When to see a doctor
Most back pain gets better within a few weeks without treatment. If you’re very uncomfortable, you can rest in bed for a day or two, but longer than that does more harm than good. Over-the-counter pain medications often help reduce back pain, as does the application of cold or heat to the painful area.
Schedule an office visit
Call your doctor if your back pain hasn’t improved at all after three days of home treatment or if your back pain:
- Is constant or intense, especially at night or when you lie down
- Spreads down one or both legs, especially if the pain extends below your knee
- Causes weakness, numbness or tingling in one or both legs
- Occurs with unintended weight loss
- Occurs with swelling or redness on your back
Seek emergency medical care
Call 911 or emergency medical help or have someone drive you to the emergency room if your back pain:
- Occurs after a high-impact car crash, bad fall or sports injury
- Causes new bowel or bladder control problems
- Occurs with a fever