14 Medical Reasons for Your Chronic Lower Back Pain
You might have strained a muscle, damaged a bone, or at worst developed cancer. Learn the medical reasons behind chronic lower back pain.
These bony growths can form on the bones in your spine as you age. “Bone spurs themselves are typically not painful, but they can press on the spinal cord and nerves,” says Peter Lee, MD, a neurosurgeon at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital. The resulting pain can radiate from the buttocks down the leg—this is called sciatica; in more severe cases, sciatica can cause weakness or numbness in the leg. “Patients often tell me their pain is worse with prolonged standing and walking, and it’s relieved by leaning forward. This is especially noticeable when they are shopping at the supermarket and have to lean over the cart. We call this the ‘shopping cart sign.’” When assessing you for bone spurs, a physician will perform a detailed exam and, if appropriate, order an X-ray, MRI, or both. Anti-inflammatory medications and physical therapy can help. In some cases, steroid injections or surgery may be indicated.
It’s not surprising that cancer of the spine may cause back pain—but cancer-related back pain is more commonly triggered by breast or lung cancer, Dr. Rajneesh says. “The cancer may go to the bone, which can result in fractures, arthritis, or nerve irritation, depending on where the tumors are.” Back pain can also result from colon, rectal, or ovarian cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. An oncologist can diagnose cancers and recommend treatment plans. Be sure to read these 15 things oncologists do to prevent cancer.
Body mass index (BMI) is an estimate of body fat based on weight-to-height ratio—you can easily calculate yours here. If your BMI is above 25 (overweight) and especially if it’s above 30 (obese), you’re at elevated risk for chronic lower back pain. “The weight is pulling on your spine 24-7,” says Dr. Cornfield. Especially problematic: belly fat. “The stomach pulls you forward and kills your lower back,” he says. Eating a healthy diet, exercising, reducing stress, and getting sufficient sleep can help with weight loss. So can these 50 weight-loss breakthroughs doctors wish you knew.
Smokers are three times more likely to develop chronic lower back pain than nonsmokers, according to research from Northwestern University. Smoking restricts blood flow to the discs that cushion the vertebrae, which increases the rate of degeneration and can cause pain. “Coughing from heavy smoking can also cause back pain,” says Dr. Cornfield. Smoking also increases the risk of spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spaces within the spine that puts pressure on the nerves and can cause the “shopping cart sign.” The best thing you can do is quit. Easier said than done, of course, but these ex-smokers reveal what helped them actually quit.
Anxiety and depression
While anxiety and depression don’t cause chronic lower back pain, they can compound it. “The overlap between chronic pain and depression is very big,” says Dr. Rajneesh. “Treating one can treat the other.” If people who are depressed or anxious don’t get treatment for that, they will not get full relief from whatever they’re doing for their back pain. “And that becomes a vicious cycle,” he says. Read up on the everyday things therapists suggest to help with anxiety and depression.