Causes of back pain

Your back is a complex structure made up of bones, muscles, nerves and joints. This can often make it difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of the pain.

Most cases of back pain are not caused by serious damage or disease but by sprains, minor strains, minor injuries or a pinched or irritated nerve.

Back pain can be triggered by everyday activities at home or at work, or it can develop gradually over time as a result of prolonged sitting or standing or lifting badly. Other causes of back pain include:

  • bending awkwardly or for long periods
  • lifting, carrying, pushing or pulling incorrectly
  • slouching in chairs
  • twisting
  • over-stretching
  • driving in a hunched position or driving for long periods without taking a break
  • overuse of the muscles, usually due to sport or repetitive movements (repetitive strain injury

Sometimes back pain develops suddenly for no apparent reason. Some people just wake up one morning with back pain and have no idea what has caused it.

Risk factors

Certain risk factors increase your chances of developing back pain. These include:

  • being overweight – the extra weight puts pressure on the spine; you can use the BMI healthy weight calculator to find out if you need to lose weight. 
  • smoking – this may be due to tissue damage in the back caused by smoking or the fact that smokers tend to have unhealthier lifestyles than non-smokers; get help quitting
  • being pregnant – the extra weight of carrying a baby can place additional strain on the back.
  • long-term use of medication known to weaken bones – such as corticosteroids.
  • stress – stress is thought to cause tension in the back muscles which can result in back pain.
  • depression – back pain can make people feel depressed, which can sometimes result in weight gain which leads to increased pain and worsening depression.

Read more about medical tests for back pain.

In a small number of cases, back pain is caused by a specific medical condition – for example: 

Read about treating back pain


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