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What causes back pain?

Your back is a complex structure made up of bones, muscles, nerves and joints, so pinpointing the exact cause of the pain can often be difficult.

However, 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 and at work, or it can develop gradually over time as a result of sitting, standing or lifting badly. Back pain causes include:

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

Sometimes the 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

Some risk factors increase the risk of developing back pain. These include:

  • being overweight – the extra weight puts pressure on the spine. Use the healthy weight body mass index BMI calculator to find out if you need to lose weight
  • smoking – this could 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 excess weight of carrying a baby can place additional strain on the back
  • long-term use of medicine that is known to weaken bones, such as corticosteroids
  • stress – it is thought that stress can cause tension in the muscles of the back, which can result in back pain
  • depression – back pain can make people feel depressed, which can sometimes result in weight gain leading to more severe pain and worsening depression.

In a small number of cases, back pain is caused by a specific medical condition. These conditions include:

  • neck pain
  • whiplash
  • shoulder pain
  • frozen shoulder
  • ankylosing spondylitis
  • slipped disc
  • sciatica.

When to see a doctor?

In some cases, it’s recommended that you see a doctor for advice and help:

  • if you are in pain or get advice on medicines you can take
  • if your back pain lasts for more than six weeks
  • if you develop numbness or pain in the buttock, leg or foot.

You should also see your doctor urgently or go to the emergency department if you lose control of your bladder or bowels.

Not sure what to do next?

If you are still concerned about your back pain, why not use healthdirect’s online Symptom Checker to get advice on when to seek medical attention.

The Symptom Checker guides you to the next appropriate healthcare steps, whether it’s self care, talking to a health professional, going to a hospital or calling triple zero (000).



Last reviewed: July 2015

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