Understanding the Causes of Back Pain

Quincy AdamChronic Pain Learn

Pain in the neck
Back pain is an extremely common ailment, with 50-80% of the US population experiencing back pain at some point in their lives.1 Pain can occur in the upper or lower back, and the location of your pain may point to a possible cause.

Common causes of back pain can include the following:

Everyday Activities

Back pain—especially upper back pain—can occur after playing sports or when participating in activities such as throwing, bending or twisting. Some people experience upper back pain after doing yard work or reaching for something on a high shelf. You can also hurt your upper back by lifting or carrying something heavy, such as a backpack or purse, especially if you carry it over only one shoulder. Pain results from overuse, strain or injury to spinal support muscles, ligaments or discs.

Poor Posture

Poor posture, such as sitting or standing in an awkward position for long periods of time can cause or worsen back pain. Examples can include hunching over a computer or a steering wheel while sitting, or assuming a slouching posture when standing.


Many types of accidents can cause back injuries that result in pain from bruised muscles, torn ligaments or fractures of the vertebrae (spinal bones).

Pinched Nerves

Nerves extend from your spinal cord, and they can become pinched or compressed. This can occur from repetitive motions, injury or degenerative bone disorders.

Herniated Disc

Your spine is made up of bones and spongy discs that act as shock absorbers. A weakened or torn disc is known as a herniated (or slipped or ruptured) disc, and it can cause pain, numbness, or weakness by putting pressure on a nerve. A herniated disc can be caused by the wear and tear of aging or by an injury.


Osteoarthritis is a disease that causes the cartilage or the joints and discs in your neck and back to break down. It usually causes dull, aching pain, although it can be more intense when you lift something heavy or twist.


Osteoporosis weakens your bones, so if you have this disease, you’re more likely to suffer from broken spinal bones. These usually occur in the upper spine, causing pain and a hunched posture. If you break several spinal bones, you may also lose some of your height.

Spinal Stenosis

Spinal stenosis causes the spaces in your backbone to narrow, which puts pressure on your spinal cord and nerves. Bones, ligaments, and tissue can grow into this area, causing pressure on nerves on your spinal cord. Spinal stenosis is most common in the lower back, although it can also occur in the upper back.

Degenerative Disc Disease

As you age, your spinal discs break down over time from normal wear and tear. This is known as degenerative disc disease, and it can cause small cracks to develop in your discs. Aging is the most common cause of degenerative disc disease, but an injury or other diseases can also cause this normal process to start earlier.


A gallstone can cause pain between your shoulder blades or in your right shoulder. You may also experience pain in the upper right portion or center of your abdomen.

Back pain symptoms range from person to person and may include sharp, localized pain OR persistent pain. Your back may feel stiff or achy in the upper, middle and/or lower part of your back. Because back pain could be a symptom of other issues, it’s important to pay attention to your symptoms and reach out to your doctor, especially when they don’t improve quickly. He or she will most likely ask about your past health, symptoms and work or physical activity, and conduct a physical exam. Your physician may also order an X-ray or MRI test to look for broken bones or other injuries that could be causing your pain.

Treatment will depend on the cause of the pain, so close communication with your doctor is important. Options for you may include managing the pain with over-the-counter or prescription medications, applying heat or ice, manual therapy (such as massage or physical therapy) or surgery.

Seek immediate medical attention if your upper back pain is accompanied by:

• Weakness in your arms or legs
• Numbness or tingling in arms, legs, chest or belly
• Lack of bowel or bladder control
• Chest pain or pressure
• Nausea or shortness of breath

1 “Help for Back Pain.” http://www.arthritis.org/about-ar