Read below about back pain, including causes, treatment options and remedies. Or get a personalized analysis of your back pain from our A.I. health assistant. At Buoy, we build tools that help you know what’s wrong right now and how to get the right care.

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Back Pain Symptoms

The alarm goes off and as you reach to smack that off button, it suddenly feels like someone has stabbed you in the back. You reach under the bed to get a stray sock and when you try and stand up you find you can't—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.

Common symptoms of back pain are:

  • 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 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, towards 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 symptoms—were 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.

Back pain symptoms that can be associated with more serious conditions include:

  • Shooting pains down one leg (typically caused by sciatica)
  • Numbness in the legs
  • Weakness in the legs
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Burning urination and fever (which can indicate a kidney infection that has become chronic, advanced)
  • Pain on both sides of the lower back accompanied by a change in the taste of food/metallic taste in the mouth (signs of kidney failure)
  • Pain localized chiefly to the upper back (which 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 (which could indicate a ruptured disc or herniated disc)

Back Pain Causes Overview

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.

Mechanical back pain causes:

  • 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:

  • 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:

  • 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.

A.I. Health Assistant Causes for Back Pain

The list below shows results from the use of our A.I. Health Assistant by Buoy users who experienced back pain. This list does not constitute medical advice.

  1. 1.Low Back Strain

    A strain, commonly called a "pulled muscle," is when a muscle becomes overstretched and tears. A low back strain happens when one of the muscles in the lower back is stressed due to an unusual movement (such as lifting a heavy object, or lifting while twisting).

    This is usually a self-limiting problem, and should subside on its own within weeks.

    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
  2. 2.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.

    Indefinite

    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
  3. 3.Fibromyalgia

    Fibromyalgia is a disorder that causes widespread pain, tenderness, and fatigue.

    Fibromyalgia is generally a lifelong condition

    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
  4. 4.Kidney Stone

    A kidney stone is a solid piece of material that forms in the kidney from substances in the urine. Most kidney stones pass out of the body without help from a doctor. But sometimes a stone will not go away. It may get stuck in the urinary tract, block the flow of urine and cause great pain.

    The prognosis for a kidney stone is good, as it is not a chronic condition. Once the stone has passed, the pain will go away. However, if you have had a kidney stone, you have about a 1 in 2 chance of getting another one in five to seven years. This can be prevented by: 1. Drinking more than 2 liters (2.11 quarts) of water a day. 2. Eating a healthy diet with foods rich in calcium such as milk and other dairy products, peas and beans, leafy green vegetables, nuts, and bony fish like sardines and salmon. 3. Avoiding use of lots of salt in cooking. 4. Eating more vegetables, as they help make urine less acidic.

    Rarity:
    Uncommon
    Top Symptoms:
    abdominal or flank pain, nausea, abdominal pain that comes and goes, diarrhea, pelvis pain
    Symptoms that always occur with kidney stone:
    abdominal or flank pain
    Urgency:
    Hospital emergency room
  5. 5.Kidney Infection (Pyelonephritis)

    Pyelonephritis is the medical term for a kidney infection. This can arise as a result of a bladder infection that travels upstream. A kidney infection is usually bacterial in nature, and can cause pain on the side of the stomach, high fever, nausea, and blood in the urine.

    Course of antibiotics for 7-14 days, but symptoms should begin to improve after 48 hours.

    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 Checker

    Take a quiz to find out why you’re having back pain.

    Back Pain Quiz
  6. 6.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.

    The pain associated with a slipped disk usually goes away within six weeks. If the pain lasts longer, consult a doctor. They may send you to see a back specialist for an MRI of your spine, and surgery may be considered.

    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
  7. 7.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.

    Variable depending on severity

    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
  8. 8.Sciatica

    The sciatic nerve is the largest nerve of the human body, and it runs through the buttock, down the thigh and into the calf, sending information to the muscles in the back of the thigh and leg, as well as the surrounding skin. The sciatic nerve itself is supplied by nerves coming from the spine in the lower back. Sometimes, one of the disks separating the vertebrae (bones of the spine) may bulge out a little bit, putting pressure on one of these nerve roots, causing sciatica, or shooting pain down the sciatic nerve.

    Problem will resolve itself within several weeks in 80-90% of cases.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    back pain, back pain that shoots down the leg, numbness in one foot, pain in one leg, numbness in one thigh
    Symptoms that always occur with sciatica:
    back pain that shoots down the leg
    Urgency:
    Self-treatment
  9. 9.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.

    The pain associated with a slipped disk usually goes away within six weeks. If the pain lasts longer, consult a doctor. They may send you to see a back specialist for an MRI of your spine, and surgery may be considered.

    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
  10. 10.Iliolumbar Syndrome

    Iliolumbar Syndrome is caused by a tear of the iliolumbar ligament, which connects the hip to the spine. It's caused by overuse or acute trauma to the area.

    1-2 months

    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.

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
  • Acetaminophen
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen
  • 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.

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:

  • 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

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

If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions, try our back pain symptom checker to find out more.

Back Pain Quiz

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”).

A.I. Health Assistant

Take a quiz to find out why you’re having back pain

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