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What causes back pain?

Back pain is often caused by a simple muscle, tendon or ligament strain and not usually by a serious problem.

Often back pain doesn’t have one simple cause but may be due to a range of factors, including:

  • poor posture
  • lack of exercise resulting in stiffening of the spine
  • muscle strains or sprains.

As well as the factors listed above, there are also specific conditions which are associated with pain felt in the back.

Spondylosis

As we grow older the discs in the spine become thinner and the spaces between the vertebrae become narrower. Spurs of bone (osteophytes) may form at the edges of the vertebrae and facet joints. This is called spondylosis. All of us will have some of these changes in our spine as we get older, but they will not cause all of us pain.

Sciatica

Back pain is sometimes linked with pain in the legs, and there may be numbness or a tingling feeling. This is called sciatica. This is due to irritation or squeezing of one of the spinal nerves (called the sciatic nerve). For most people who develop sciatica, the leg pain tends to be the most troublesome symptom and they may not have back pain at all.

Pain travels down the leg because of the irritation of the sciatic nerve in the lumbar spine, but there’s actually nothing wrong with the leg itself. In most cases the reason for the nerve irritation is a bulging disc. Discs are designed to bulge but sometimes a bulge can 'catch' on the sciatic nerve roots causing pain that travels all down the leg to the foot.

Sciatica is fairly uncommon and fortunately most people recover fairly quickly, although in some cases it might take a number of months. About 60% of all people with sciatica get better within a few weeks to months.

Spinal stenosis

Spinal stenosis is back pain linked with pain in the legs which starts after a few minutes’ walking and tends to get better very quickly when you sit down. This can happen from birth or develop as we get older.

Symptoms often affect both legs but one may be worse than the other. The pain usually eases when you sit down and rest, and some people have less discomfort if they walk a little stooped. Like sciatica, the main problem tends to be leg pain more than back pain.

In most cases, neither sciatica nor spinal stenosis are causes for alarm, but if the symptoms cause you a lot of trouble and greatly affect your quality of life then you should see your doctor for further advice and to discuss what else can be done.

Other rarer causes of back pain include:

For more information, go to www.arthritisresearchuk.org.
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