Causes of Back Pain

Reading time: 3 min

Back pain that appears suddenly and lasts less than six weeks (acute) can be due to a fall or lifting a heavy object. The back pain that lasts for more than three months (chronic) is less common than acute pain.

Often, a health professional may not be able to identify the cause of the back pain with a test or diagnostic imaging study.

The most common disorders associated with back pain include:

Person with muscle and ligament pressure

Muscle strain or ligament sprain. To lift heavy objects repeatedly or to make a sudden bad movement can put pressure on the muscles of the back and the ligaments of the vertebral column and cause painful muscle spasms.

Bulging or herniated disc

Disc protrusion or herniation. Each one of the intervertebral discs are pillows that separate the vertebrae. They function as shock absorbers and allows slight movements of the vertebrae. With ageing, the intervertebral disc can lose fluid and become dry. When this happens, the disc is compromised. This can deteriorate the external ring that enables the gelatinous nucleus to stick out or protrude. This is called a disc protrusion.

As the disc degenerates, or with the continuous force of the column, the disc fractures and the interior comes out of the disc. This is called a disc rupture or herniation. The fragments of disc material can then put pressure on the nerve roots that are located just behind the disc space. This can cause pain, weakness, numbness, or changes in sensation. However, one can have a disc protrusion or herniation without feeling back pain. The disc problem is usually detected accidentally when an X-ray, magnetic resonance, or CT scan of the vertebral column is performed for some other reason.

Low back pain

Osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis can affect the area and reduce the space that surrounds the spinal column, a disorder that is called spinal canal stenosis.

Knee joint deformity

Bone irregularities. Anomalies of the anatomy of the back, such as abnormal curvature of the spine (scoliosis), can also cause back pain.

Bone affected by osteoporosis

Osteoporosis. The vertebrae of the spine may present with fractures due to compression when the bones become porous and fragile.

Risk factors of Back Pain

Anybody can have back pain, even children and adolescents. Some factors that increase the risk of having it are:

Woman growing older from childhood to old age

Age. Back pain is more common as one gets older, from 30 or 40 years onwards.

Exercising person with a down arrow indicating fatigue

Lack of exercise. A back and/or abdomen weakened due to lack of exercise favours back pain.

Scale with an arrow pointing upwards indicating a weight increase

Excess weight. Obesity is an excess burden for the back.

Knee joint deformity

Diseases. Some types of osteoarthritis and cancer can contribute to the back pain.

Sweating woman carrying two bags

To lift objects incorrectly. To perform this effort with the back instead of the legs can cause back pain.

Woman crying with anxiety and depression or minor illnesses

Psychological conditions. Individuals prone to depression and anxiety appear to have a higher risk of having back pain.

Cigarette crossed out on a "no smoking" poster

Smoking. Smoking reduces the blood flow and, therefore, prevents the body supplying sufficient nutrients to the vertebral discs. Smoking also delays the recovery process.

Substantiated information by:

José Poblete Carrizo
Salvador Fuster

Published: 23 October 2019
Updated: 23 October 2019

The donations that can be done through this webpage are exclusively for the benefit of Hospital Clínic of Barcelona through Fundació Clínic per a la Recerca Biomèdica and not for BBVA Foundation, entity that collaborates with the project of PortalClínic.


Receive the latest updates related to this content.

Thank you for subscribing!

If this is the first time you subscribe you will receive a confirmation email, check your inbox

An error occurred and we were unable to send your data, please try again later.