Back Pain


Back Pain Overview

Experts estimate that about 4 out of every 5 Americans experience back pain. Do the math: that's a lot of backs in a lot of pain. But why exactly is back pain so common? What causes it and what's the best way to get rid of it?

Ready to stop your back pain?
Read on to understand how.

The Trusty Guide to Back Pain will provide answers to the most commons questions about back pain. We'll take you through the causes of back pain, back pain treatments, and back pain prevention, so that you'll know what to do to help reduce your back pain.

The guide is organized into sections, which are summarized below. Read the guide straight through or feel free to jump straight to the section of your choice. At the end of the guide, be sure to test your newfound knowledge with our back pain quiz. Also, we are always looking to improve our guides. If you have any suggestions, please send us your thoughts using the "Send Feedback" link at the bottom of the page.

Section Key Points
How the back works
  • Vertebrae (the spine): Your spine—also known as your backbone--is comprised of 24 irregularly-shaped bone blocks called vertebrae, stacked one on top of each other, beginning at your pelvis and ending at the base of your skull
  • Discs: Between each vertebrae there are tough, fibrous cartilage cushions called discs. Think of them as the “shock absorbers” of your spine
  • Ligaments: Strong, stretchy muscles called ligaments are what hold all these discs and vertebrae together in a column
  • Tendons: The ligaments are attached to the vertebrae by rubbery connections called tendons
  • Contraction and expansion of back muscles: The muscles plus all these connections enable your spine to be extremely flexible and strong. Hence, the spine is involved in nearly every major movement of your body
  • Lumbar Region (lower back): It bears the heaviest burden in movement because of gravity. As a result, most back pain originates here
Types of Back Pain
  • Acute: Caused by simple strains and sprains, frequently caused sudden movements after periods of inactivity
  • Herniated Disc:  When one of the discs between the vertebrae bulges or becomes misshapen due to activity, misuse or injury, it can pinch or irritate a nerve root, causing pain
  • Sciatica: When a herniated disk impinges on the sciatic nerve
  • Spondylolisthesis: When one vertebra slips over another
  • Pregnancy: Frequently overstretches ligaments and effects lower back
  • Fibromyalgia: characterized by fatigue, widespread pain in  muscles, ligaments and tendons, and multiple tender points, including the back. Fibromylagia is a debilitating and still somewhat mysterious condition which affects women aged 25 to 50
  • Intervertebral Disc Degeneration: refers to the gradual breaking down of the discs with age . It is an inevitable process, and is another common cause of back pain in older people
  • Osteoarthritis: Arthritis – or degenerative joint disease – causes the breakdown of joint cartilage and can affect any of the joints in the body, including those in the back
Risk Factors For Back Pain
  • Age: Back pain is a natural result of aging. First attacks usually occur in 30’s and 40’s
  • Diet: Obesity can certainly cause back pain because of undue stress on back
  • Dehydration: hydration is essential to the health of joints and muscles
  • Genetic: Your gene pool might have something to do with it
  • Inactivity: Like any other muscle in the body, when unused they become weak and susceptible to tear or strain
  • Occupation: If you move furniture for a living then you’re at risk. Also, if you sit at a desk all day or frequently take 10 hour flights and never bother to stretch and work out, you’re also at risk.
  • Race: African-American women are twice as likely as white women to develop Spondylolisthesis (where one vertebrae slips over the other)
  • Smoking: Smoking blocks your body's ability to deliver nutrients to the discs of the lower back: smokers have lower levels of oxygen in their spines, prolonging the healing process in torn ligaments or herniated discs
Back Pain Prevention
  • Exercise “back” to health: Exercise regularly. Always start with a gentle warm-up, stretch your muscles, exercise at your higher pace, gradually lower your rate of exertion until you are complete, then stretch again. Also, remember to use proper form. When in doubt, consult a trainer or physical therapist 
  • Back Pain Exercises: See our section on this because we have helpful pictures for sit-ups, wall-slide, and bridges
  • Good Posture: Stand tall
  • Sit Straight: Choose a seat with good lower back support. Arm rests are also helpful in relieving strain on your lower back. Find a chair that helps you maintain the natural curve of your spine, but that also discourages slouching (see this section of guide for pictures and exact details)
  • Stretch Out: Don’t go for long periods of time without stretching or moving your body. For those traveling businessmen out there, make sure to take a walk to the back of the plane and do some stretching BEFORE your back starts to hurt
  • Lift Smart: Keep your back straight and tall: bend only at the knees
  • Sleep Smart: Use a medium-firm to firm mattress. Use pillows for support, but don't put the neck at a severe angle. Experts recommend small pillow to fill the curvature of the neck and two thick pillows beneath the knees
  • Stop Smoking: The right decision for a number of reasons including solving your back pain
Treating Back Pain
  • When should you see a doctor: See this section of guide for details
  • Do-it-yourself pain remedies: Use support pillows, exercise gently, cold then heat, and take two aspirin. See this section of guide for details
Complementary Therapies
  • Osteopathic Medical Doctor (a D.O.)? They are a experts in back movement and pain. If you have chronic back pain, it is worth contacting your an Osteopathic Doctor in your area.
  • Acupuncture: This is gaining popularity as a way to improve blood flow for muscles in your back
  • Chiropractors: Many swear by them but recent research from the Mayo Clinic says chiropractic work really isn’t helpful


Are you ready? Click next to get started with details on how your back works.

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