Symptoms A-Z

Back Pain Symptoms, Causes & Common Questions

Understand your back pain symptoms with Buoy, including 10 causes and common questions concerning your back pain.

An image depicting a person suffering from back pain symptoms

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Contents

  1. Symptoms
  2. Causes
  3. 10 Possible Back Pain Conditions
  4. Treatments and Relief
  5. FAQs
  6. Questions Your Doctor May Ask
  7. Statistics
  8. References

Back Pain Symptoms

Your morning alarm rings, and as you reach to smack that off button, it suddenly feels like someone has stabbed you in the back. You swing your legs over, about to stand up, and you find you can't do so normally not without great effort and a lot of pain.

Back pain is an extremely common issue, affecting tens of millions of Americans every year. Usually back pain symptoms are caused by some type of minor strain or pull, and this is a short-lived problem, but in some cases it is a symptom of a serious illness [1].

Common symptoms of back pain

If you're experiencing back pain, it can likely be described by the following.

  • Persistent aching and stiffness, all along the spine
  • Pain and aches after sitting a long time
  • Sore muscles in the lower back
  • Tight lower back muscles
  • Feeling like you can't stand up straight
  • A deep ache in the lower back
  • Walking hunched over: Such as to prevent pain from standing
  • Pain when trying to lift or reach for items
  • Intense pain if lifting anything heavy or picking up objects off the ground
  • Sharp pain on the side of the back, toward the ribs
  • Cramps in the back muscles
  • Back pain that radiates all down the lower back into the buttock area: This type of pain usually radiates all the way down into the calf (sciatica).

**Note: pain in the upper back can be signs of a heart attack so keep reading.

Trying to identify all of your back pain symptoms is important. Every detail you can think of to tell the doctor will help them identify the cause of your back pain more effectively so they can, hopefully, strategize therapies to better treat it.

Key things to take note of are whether the back pain symptoms have been present for just a few days or if they have been lingering and gradually getting worse for some time. You should also try to recall exactly what initially caused the back pain symptomswere you lifting heavy weights at the gym, or working out harder than usual? Did you have to move a couch to retrieve a lost pen? Did you wake up in pain, indicating you might have slept in an odd position?

Many more serious health issues can cause back pain, however such as a heart attack, kidney failure, kidney problems, ruptured or herniated discs, a severe kidney infection, or a nerve condition called sciatica [2,3].

Back pain symptoms that can be associated with more serious conditions

Your back pain may be due to more serious conditions if you also experience:

  • Shooting pains down one leg: Typically caused by sciatica
  • Numbness in the legs
  • Weakness in the legs
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Burning urination and fever: This can indicate a kidney infection that has become chronic or advanced.
  • Pain on both sides of the lower back accompanied by a change in the taste of food/metallic taste in the mouth: These are signs of kidney failure [4].
  • Pain localized chiefly to the upper back: This can indicate a heart attack, and you should see a doctor or go to the hospital immediately.
  • Pain increases when you cough or bend over: This could indicate a ruptured disc or herniated disc.

Back Pain Causes

The majority of back pain cases are caused by small tears (sprains and strains) of one or more of the many muscles in the lower back or other tears or injuries to this complex region.

However, the spine is a highly complex collection of nerves, cords, discs, ligaments, muscles, and joints that all connect and overlap. In short, there are many complex structures in this spinal cord system all of which can cause pain. Therefore, it can be challenging to distinguish which one of these structures is causing the back pain symptoms.

What is most urgent to note is if there are any other symptoms you are having that is making you feel bad in addition to the back pain. Sometimes, back pain is caused by a problem with another system or organ in the body other than the back. This is called referred pain.

Serious non-mechanical causes of back pain can include infection of bones or nerves, cancer, or arthritis.

Most causes of back pain are simply mechanical causes, like a sprain or pulled muscle, typically caused by some type of physical activity that has stressed the back [5,6].

Mechanical back pain causes

Mechanical back pain causes may include the following.

  • Sprains and strains: These are the most common cause of back pain and are typically caused by sudden movements or physical activity of some kind.
  • Disc disease and hernias: When the discs that cushion your backbone rupture, they can smash or compress the nerves coming out of your spine and cause severe pain, shooting pain, and/or cramps.
  • Fractures: Like all bones, the bones in the spine can break. Usually this is from an obvious trauma, but this can also occur in older people with weak and brittle bones.

Non-mechanical back pain causes

Non-mechanical back pain causes may include the following.

  • Cancer: One of the most common sites for tumors to spread is to the spine. This needs to be considered in anyone with new back pain and a history of cancers, especially lung, prostate and breast cancer.
  • Infections: The bones and nerves in the back can get infected, though this is not a common cause of back pain.
  • Arthritis: Both conventional osteoarthritis of the bone and less common inflammatory arthritic conditions, can lead to back pain.

Other back pain causes

Other causes of back pain that are serious may include the following.

  • Kidney conditions: Infections of the kidney (pyelonephritis), tumors of the kidney, kidney disease, or kidney stones can all cause back pain.
  • Pancreas disease: Inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis) and pancreatic tumors can lead to pain in the back.
  • Aortic aneurysm: Severe back pain that is comes on suddenly in men or women over 30 should prompt immediate evaluation for a ruptured aortic aneurysm, a life-threatening vascular condition.

10 Possible Back Pain Conditions

The list below shows results from the use of our quiz by Buoy users who experienced back pain. This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.

Low back strain

A strain is defined as a twisting, pulling, or tearing injury to a muscle, or to the tendon that connects the muscle to the bone. (A sprain is an injury to a ligament, which connects two bones together.)

Strains may be acute (happen suddenly) or chronic (show up gradually.) They are usually caused by overuse, improper lifting of heavy objects, or sports. Being overweight or having weak back muscles are both risk factors for back injury.

Symptoms may include a pop or tear at the time of injury; pain that is worse when moving; and sudden muscle cramping or spasm at the site of the injury.

Diagnosis is made through patient history, physical examination, and sometimes x-ray.

Treatment involves rest; ice packs; and over-the-counter pain relievers, followed by a gradual return to normal activities within two weeks. Prolonged immobility actually weakens the back and causes loss of bone density.

Proper lifting techniques, strengthening exercises, and good nutrition can be very helpful in preventing further injury.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: lower back pain, back pain that gets worse when sitting, back pain that gets worse when straightening it, lower left back pain, lower right back pain

Symptoms that always occur with low back strain: lower back pain

Symptoms that never occur with low back strain: involuntary defecation, first time leaking urine, back numbness, toe numbness, foot numbness

Urgency: Self-treatment

Spinal stenosis

The spine, or backbone, protects the spinal cord and allows people to stand and bend. Spinal stenosis causes narrowing in the spine. The narrowing puts pressure on nerves and the spinal cord and can cause pain.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: lower back pain, back pain that shoots down the leg, back pain that shoots to the butt, difficulty walking, thigh pain

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is a set of chronic symptoms that include ongoing fatigue, diffuse tenderness to touch, musculoskeletal pain, and usually some degree of depression.

The cause is not known. When fibromyalgia appears, it is usually after a stressful physical or emotional event such as an automobile accident or a divorce. It may include a genetic component where the person experiences normal sensation as pain.

Almost 90% of fibromyalgia sufferers are women. Anyone with rheumatic disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, may be more prone to fibromyalgia.

Poor sleep is often a symptom, along with foggy thinking, headaches, painful menstrual periods, and increased sensitivity to heat, cold, bright lights, and loud noises.

There is no standard test for fibromyalgia. The diagnosis is usually made when the above symptoms go on for three months or more with no apparent cause.

Fibromyalgia does not go away on its own but does not get worse, either.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: fatigue, arthralgias or myalgias, anxiety, depressed mood, headache

Symptoms that always occur with fibromyalgia: arthralgias or myalgias

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Kidney stone

A kidney stone is a stone made up of various possible materials that forms in the kidneys. Factors that increase the risk of forming kidney stones include high levels of calcium, uric acid, and oxalate in the urine, low levels of citrate in the urine, abnormal urine pH, low urine volume, certain urin...

Read more

Kidney infection (pyelonephritis)

A kidney infection, or pyelonephritis, is actually a type of urinary tract infection (UTI) that begins in the urethra or bladder and spreads to the kidneys.

The infection is caused by bacteria that either travel into the urethra or spread from an infection elsewhere in the body.

Women, especially pregnant women, are most susceptible. Anyone who has had a urinary tract blockage, or uses a catheter, or has a weakened immune system is also at risk for a kidney infection.

Symptoms include fever; chills; back and abdominal pain; and frequent, painful urination. If there is also nausea and vomiting and discolored, foul-smelling urine, take the patient to the emergency room or call 9-1-1.

Left untreated, pyelonephritis can cause permanent damage to the kidneys. Bacteria can also enter the bloodstream and cause a life-threatening infection elsewhere in the body.

Diagnosis is made through urine test, blood test, and sometimes imaging such as ultrasound, CT scan, or x-ray.

Treatment includes antibiotics and sometimes hospitalization.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: abdominal pain (stomach ache), nausea, pelvis pain, back pain, vomiting

Symptoms that never occur with kidney infection (pyelonephritis): mid back pain from an injury

Urgency: Hospital emergency room

Back Pain Symptom Checker

Take a quiz to find out what might be causing your back pain

Herniated (slipped) disk in the lower back

The backbone, or spine, is made up of 26 bones called vertebrae. In between the bones are soft disks filled with a jelly-like substance. These disks cushion the vertebrae and keep them in place. Although people talk about a slipped disk, nothing actually slips out of place. The outer shell of the disk ruptures, and the jelly-like substance bulges out. It may be pressing on a nerve, which is what causes the pain.A slipped disk is more likely to happen due to strain on the back, such as during heavy lifting, and older individuals are at higher risk.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: lower back pain, moderate back pain, back pain that shoots down the leg, back pain that gets worse when sitting, leg weakness

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Lower back (sacral vertebral) fracture

A sacral stress fracture is a small break in the sacrum. The sacrum is a large triangular bone at base of the spine. The sacrum connects to the pelvis.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: lower back pain, back pain that shoots to the butt, back pain that shoots down the leg, severe back pain, lower back pain from an injury

Symptoms that always occur with lower back (sacral vertebral) fracture: lower back pain from an injury

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Sciatica

Sciatica is a general term describing any shooting pain that begins at the spine and travels down the leg.

The most common cause is a herniated or "slipped" disc in the lower spine. This means some of the cushioning material inside the disc has been forced outward, pressing on a nerve root. Bony irregularities...

Read more

Herniated (slipped) disk in the upper back

The backbone, or spine, is made up of 26 bones called vertebrae. In between the bones are soft disks filled with a jelly-like substance. These disks cushion the vertebrae and keep them in place. Although people talk about a slipped disk, nothing actually slips out of place. The outer shell of the disk ruptures, and the jelly-like substance bulges out. It may be pressing on a nerve, which is what causes the pain.A slipped disk is more likely to happen due to strain on the back, such as during heavy lifting, and older individuals are at higher risk.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: upper back pain, neck pain, arm weakness, back pain that gets worse when sitting, upper spine pain

Symptoms that always occur with herniated (slipped) disk in the upper back: upper back pain

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Iliolumbar syndrome

Iliolumbar syndrome is also known as iliolumbar ligament sprain or iliac crest pain syndrome (ICPS.)

The iliolumbar ligaments are tough, fibrous bands that brace the iliac crests – the tops of the "wings" of the pelvis – to the back of the lower spine. If these ligaments are overstretched or torn, pain can result.

The syndrome may be acute, which means the pain starts suddenly after some sort of trauma such as a car accident or sports injury. It may be chronic, where it begins gradually and is usually caused by repetitive bending or twisting movements. In both cases, it is often found in patients who already have generalized low back pain.

Symptoms include severe, radiating pain from the low back to the hipbones, especially when bending or twisting

Diagnosis is made through physical examination and simple neurological tests such as leg raises.

Treatment involves rest, ice, and the use of over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to relieve pain and reduce swelling. Steroid injections can also be tried in some cases.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: lower back pain, back pain that shoots to the butt, severe back pain, back pain that shoots to the groin

Symptoms that always occur with iliolumbar syndrome: lower back pain

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Back Pain Treatments and Relief

Most back pain can be treated with home remedies such as soaking in hot baths or an over the counter back brace to support the lumbar region of the back. Some individuals love OTC creams, gels, or patches that temporarily relieve pain, but this can become an expensive form of treatment.

At-home back pain treatments

Good at home remedies for back pain symptoms are:

  • Rest: Lying very still on a flat surface can allow the back muscles to rest and reduce irritation and inflammation.
  • Ice
  • Pain relievers: Such as acetaminophen (Tylenol)
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs: Such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)
  • Gentle stretching exercises
  • Heating pads
  • Soaking in Epsom salts

In the event that you have back pain symptoms of nerve impairment, such as weakness in the legs, tingling in the extremities, numbness in your feet, or difficulty urinating or having a bowel movement, you need to seek immediate care to make sure the spine and spinal cord are not involved and that the kidney is functioning normally.

These types of spinal issues typically require steroids, steroid injections, or even surgery if your spinal cord if threatened.

When back pain is an emergency

In the event that your back pain is accompanied by nausea, stomach cramping, fever, lack of appetite, dizziness, or other symptoms making you feel very sick, get to an emergency room immediately.

Back pain can be a sign of a heart attack. If you think you might be having a heart attack, you need to call 911/get to an ER immediately. Here are common signs of a heart attack to help you identify if a heart attack might be the cause of your pain.

Heart attack symptoms

Back pain along with the following are indicative of a heart attack:

  • Chest pain, discomfort, pressure: This pain can be sudden and lasting or intermittent, coming and going.
  • Pain and discomfort in other parts of the back: Including the arms, back, neck, jaw or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath
  • Cold sweats
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness and lightheadedness

FAQs About Back Pain

Here are some frequently asked questions about back pain.

What causes back pain?

Back pain can occur in the upper, middle, and lower back regions. Back pain originates from one or more of the parts of the back including the vertebrae, the discs sitting between the vertebrae, the spinal cord, and its branching nerves and the surrounding ligaments, tendons, and muscles.

What is the cause of lower back pain?

Lower back pain is one of the most common ailments among adults. The most common causes of low back pain are muscle spasm or strain, tendon or ligament injury, bulging or torn discs, arthritis of the spine joints, spinal canal narrowing, vertebral misalignment, and much less commonly infection or tumor.

What does a slipped disk feel like?

Slipped discs, or herniated discs, most commonly occur in the lower back region and can result in spinal nerve compression. Depending on which level of the spine is affected and if spinal nerves are compressed, this may cause severe pain, numbness and discomfort on the spine or along the affected nerve.

What causes muscle spasms?

Muscle spasms of the back are most commonly caused by injury or strain either to the muscles themselves or injury to the spine and the surrounding soft tissue. While muscle spasm is the body's natural mechanism to protect itself such as from strain after heavy lifting, the resulting pain can be very uncomfortable.

What does a herniated disc feel like?

This causes the same feeling as a slipped disc.

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Back Pain

To diagnose this condition, your doctor would likely ask the following questions:

  • Does your back pain radiate anywhere?
  • Any fever today or during the last week?
  • Do you currently smoke?
  • What is your body mass?

The above questions are also covered by our A.I. Health Assistant.

If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions

Take a quiz to find out what might be causing your back pain

Back Pain Symptom Checker Statistics

People who have experienced back pain have also experienced:

  • 8% Abdominal Pain (Stomach Ache)
  • 4% Nausea
  • 3% Rib Pain

People who have experienced back pain were most often matched with:

  • 42% Spinal Stenosis
  • 42% Fibromyalgia
  • 14% Low Back Strain

Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from visits to the Buoy AI health assistant (check it out by clicking on “Take Quiz”).

Back Pain Symptom Checker

Take a quiz to find out what might be causing your back pain

References

  1. Back Pain. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Updated August 20, 2018. MedlinePlus Link.
  2. Warning Signs of a Heart Attack. American Heart Association. Updated June 30, 2016. AHA Link.
  3. Low Back Pain Fact Sheet. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Updated August 7, 2018. NINDS Link.
  4. 3 Early Warning Signs of Kidney Disease. National Kidney Foundation. NKF Link.
  5. Low Back Strain and Sprain. American Association of Neurological Surgeons. AANS Link.
  6. Back Pain. UW Medicine: Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine. UW Medicine Link.

Disclaimer: The article does not replace an evaluation by a physician. Information on this page is provided as an information resource only, and is not to be used or relied on for any diagnostic or treatment purposes.