What Is Back Pain?

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A man wearing work gloves and holding a tool

Back pain is one of the most common medical problems in the United States.

Changes to any part of your back—such as ones that may occur with aging, getting hurt, or having other medical conditions—can lead to back pain. It can start suddenly or come on slowly. It may feel like a dull, constant ache, or a sudden, sharp pain.

Acute back pain happens suddenly and usually lasts a few days to a few weeks. Back pain that lasts longer than 12 weeks is called chronic back pain.

 

Who Gets Back Pain?

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A construction worker

Anyone can have back pain. You may be more likely to have back pain because of the following:

  • Age: Back pain is more common as you age.
  • Fitness level: Back pain is more common if you are out of shape. Weak back and abdominal muscles may result in back pain. You may also get back pain if you exercise too hard or too much.
  • Obesity: If you are overweight or obese, it can put stress on the back and cause pain.
  • Family history: Genes can play a role in some disorders that cause back pain.
  • Some jobs: If your job requires you to lift, push, or pull while twisting your spine, you may be more likely to develop back pain. If you work at a desk all day and have poor posture, you may also develop back pain. 

When Should I See a Doctor?

Back pain usually goes away within a few weeks with home treatment and self-care. However, you should see a doctor if your pain does not improve or if you have any of the following with your back pain:

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A patient holds their back while a doctor examines it
  • Tingling or numbness.
  • Severe pain that does not improve with treatment.
  • Back pain from a fall or injury.
  • Back pain with:
    • Trouble urinating.
    • Weakness, pain, or numbness in your legs.
    • Fever.
    • Unexplained weight loss.

Your doctor may use many tools to help figure out the cause of your back pain. This can include performing an exam and asking you about your family and medical history, your pain, and if anything makes your pain worse or better. Sometimes, your doctor may order testing, such as x-rays, other imaging tests, and blood tests. Download the PDF at the top of this page for a printable booklet that includes tools such as a medication tracker, pain tracker, and daily activity tracker.

How Do Doctors Treat Back Pain? 

Your treatment may depend on why you have back pain and what kind of pain you have. Most acute back pain usually gets better after a few weeks of home treatment. 

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A patient does a back stretch with a resistance band while a medical professional assists

Your doctor may recommend the following to help manage your back pain. 

  • Use cold packs to help with pain and hot packs to increase blood flow and help you heal. 
  • Do not lay down all day. Instead, limit activities or exercise that cause pain or make it worse. Slowly increase your activity as you are able. 
  • Use over-the-counter and prescription pain relievers for severe pain as directed by your doctor.
  • Get physical therapy to help strengthen muscles and improve your posture. Check with your doctor or physical therapist before starting any exercise routine.
  • Practice healthy habits such as getting regular sleep, eating a healthy diet, and quitting smoking.

You may want to try other types of therapies or treatments, such as:

  • Massage and adjustment of the spine and muscles by a professionally trained doctor or therapist.
  • A device that sends mild electrical pulses to the nerves through pads that are placed on your skin. 
  • Acupuncture, which is a Chinese practice that uses thin needles to help relieve pain. 

Doctors may consider surgery to treat your back pain if other treatments have not helped. However, surgery is not right for everyone, even if the pain persists. The type of surgery your doctor recommends depends on the cause of your pain and your medical history.

How to Help Keep Your Back Healthy 

You can work with your doctor to help manage your back pain and keep your back healthy. Remember to follow your doctor’s directions. These tips may help: 

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  • Slowly add exercises back into your daily routine. Talk to your doctor about the types of exercises that are best for you.
  • Ask your doctor if you should avoid certain activities or exercises.
  • Wear comfortable shoes with a low heel.
  • When driving long distances, stop regularly to stand up and walk around.
  • When sitting for a long time, remember to get up, move around, and change your position frequently.
  • Limit the amount you carry. Instead of carrying more items at once, make extra trips.
  • Try to sleep on your side with a small pillow between your knees. If you sleep on your back, place a pillow under your knees. If possible, avoid sleeping on your stomach.

Research Supported by NIH/NIAMS

Scientists supported by the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), are working to find out more about back pain. Researchers are looking at these issues:

  • Managing chronic low back pain.
  • Improving treatments for back pain.
  • Treating acute pain and preventing pain from becoming chronic.
  • Understanding the many factors that can cause back pain.
  • Preventing disability in people who have back pain.
  • Learning more about disorders that cause back pain to help prevent the disease from advancing.

Clinical Trials: You Could Make a Difference!

A clinical trial is a type of research study that involves people who volunteer to take part in it. Most clinical trials test a new treatment for a health problem, like a new drug or diet. Clinical trials help doctors learn if a new treatment is better, the same, or worse than standard care. Other clinical trials test ways to prevent a disease or find it early. 

Talk to your doctor about whether a clinical trial would be right for you. When you volunteer to take part in clinical research, you help doctors and researchers learn more about back pain. 

Also, when you participate in a study, you may have the chance to receive the newest treatment and have additional care from the clinical trial staff.

To learn more about the basics of participating in a clinical trial, visit the website NIH Clinical Research Trials and You

At that website you will find:

  • Information on risks and potential benefits.
  • Firsthand stories from clinical trial volunteers.
  • Explanations from researchers.
  • Instructions for finding a clinical trial at the NIH or somewhere else in the country. 

To hear from people who have taken part in clinical studies led by NIAMS researchers, watch these videos.

Where Can I Find More Information About Back Pain?

National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS) Information Clearinghouse

National Institutes of Health 
1 AMS Circle 
Bethesda, MD 20892-3675 
Phone: 301-495-4484 
Toll free: 877-22-NIAMS (226-4267) 
For telecommunications support, dial 711
Fax: 301-718-6366 
Email: NIAMSinfo@mail.nih.gov 
Website: niams.nih.gov

Find more information about back pain.

If you need more information about available resources in your language or another language, please visit our website or contact the NIAMS Information Clearinghouse.

Other Resources

U.S. Food and Drug Administration
Toll free: 888-INFO-FDA (888-463-6332)

Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Center for Health Statistics

CDC, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons

American Chiropractic Association

American College of Rheumatology

American Osteopathic Association

North American Spine Society

Arthritis Foundation

National Spine Health Foundation

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