Stiff Back Symptoms
Back stiffness is a common and potentially debilitating symptom. It may start suddenly or can progress slowly over time. Severe back stiffness can interfere with daily activities, such as movements required for work. Back stiffness can be particularly debilitating for elderly adults, but some conditions associated with back stiffness can occur at younger ages. The stiffness can occur due to problems with back muscles, joints in the spine, or the spinal cord itself.
Symptoms that can be associated with a stiff back include:
Stiff Back Causes
Arthritis May Be Causing Your Stiff Back
- Inflammatory arthritis: Some types of arthritis are characterized by inflammation within joints. Inflammatory arthritis often leads to stiffness in the back, particularly in a condition called ankylosing spondylitis. This type of arthritis most commonly affects young men. Other parts of the body can be affected, particularly the eyes.
- Osteoarthritis: Older people are often affected by osteoarthritis, resulting from accumulated damage to the joints due to wear and tear over a lifetime. Osteoarthritis in the spine can result in back pain and stiffness.
Muscle conditions that cause a stiff back
- Muscle strain: Excessive stretching force on muscles in the back can cause stiffness and pain. Muscle strain can occur due to sudden injury, such as when lifting a heavy object. It can also occur due to repetitive forces on the muscle over time during occupational or athletic activities.
- Pain syndromes: Back muscles can be involved in musculoskeletal pain syndromes such as fibromyalgia. In this case, there will be chronic pain throughout the body, typically accompanied by stiffness. Back muscles are often involved and may be most stiff in the mornings. Fibromyalgia is most common in young women.
- Polymyalgia rheumatica: This inflammatory condition affects muscles close to the middle of the body, including the shoulders, hips, and back. Muscle pain is commonly accompanied by stiffness, particularly in the mornings. This disorder is sometimes associated with inflammation of the temporal artery, which can lead to blindness if left untreated.
Spine and spinal cord injury
- Fracture: A fracture of part of a vertebra can lead to back pain and stiffness. Depending on the type of fracture, either young athletes or older adults are most commonly affected. Osteoporosis or thinning of bones is a risk factor.
- Spinal cord compression: Back pain is usually the dominant symptom in compression of the spinal cord or its nerve roots, along with neurological abnormalities, but back stiffness can also occur. The spinal cord can be compressed by bony abnormalities or injury, infection, or a herniated disc. Immediate medical evaluation is recommended.
6 Possible Stiff Back Conditions
The list below shows results from the use of our quiz by Buoy users who experienced stiff back. This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.
Diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis
Diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis (DISH) is calcification or a bony hardening of ligaments in areas where they attach to the spine. Ligaments are supposed to be flexible, so DISH can cause symptoms such as pain, stiffness, and restricted movement.
Top Symptoms: joint pain, upper back pain, stiff neck, stiff back, trouble swallowing
Urgency: Primary care doctor
"Ankylosing" means a joint has become stiffened and fixed in one position due to injury or disease. "Spondylitis" means inflammation in the joints of the spine. In ankylosing spondylitis, inflammation has damaged the vertebrae of the low back and caused a form of arthritis, leaving the lower spine inflexible.
Symptoms include pain and stiffness in the back and hips, and sometimes in the neck and shoulders. The pain will be worse during sleep and rest.
The diagnosis is made through physical examination and X-rays. Early treatment can help to manage the symptoms, prevent complications, and improve quality of life. Treatment involves non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs; new forms of biologic medications; physical therapy; and, in some cases, surgery to repair damaged joints.
Top Symptoms: fatigue, back pain, trouble sleeping, joint pain, hip pain
Symptoms that always occur with ankylosing spondylitis: back pain
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Lower back arthritis
Osteoarthritis, most often simply called arthritis, is a disease of cartilage. In joints, where bones touch and move against one another, cartilage helps provide lubrication for smooth movement, and acts as a shock absorber. Cartilage is also present in between vertebrae, which are the bones comprising the spine. Osteoarthritis of the spine, also known as degenerative joint disease, happens when the cartilage between vertebrae dries out and shrinks. The vertebrae are thus not as able to move smoothly against one another. The ability to walk and perform normal daily activities can be impaired due to inflammation and pain in the lower back.
Top Symptoms: lower back pain, spontaneous back pain, back pain that gets worse when straightening it, back pain from overuse
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Psoriatic arthritis is a condition which causes inflammation of the joints. In most circumstances, psoriatic arthritis presents between the ages of 30 and 50 years and occurs after the manifestation of the symptoms of psoriasis, which is a disease of the skin. Psoriatic arthritis typically causes redness, swelling, pain, and stiffness of certain joints. Most commonly, the fingers and toes are affected and may appear "sausage-like." Psoriatic arthritis is predominantly a genetic disease but it can be activated by certain environmental triggers. Avoidance of these triggers could delay or prevent disease onset. Treatment includes symptom management with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and steroids. In more severe cases, other drugs to halt the disease progression such as methotrexate are used.
Top Symptoms: shoulder pain, lower back pain, joint pain, upper back pain, hip pain
Urgency: Primary care doctor
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.
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
Arthritis is a general term for multiple conditions that cause painful inflammation and stiffness throughout the body. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic condition that is autoimmune in nature, meaning that the body's immune system which normally protects the body by attacking foreign pathogens mistakenly begins attacking the own body's tissues. In adults, RA is the most common form of inflammatory arthritis caused by autoimmunity.
RA is caused by the immune system attacking the lining of the joints (synovium). This immune activity results in inflammation in the synovium that causes it to thicken and expand. The thickening destroys the cartilage and bone of the joint and causes the tendons and ligaments of the joint to weaken and stretch.
Over time, the cartilage loss continues, the space between bones becomes smaller, and eventually the joint becomes loose, painful and unstable. As the condition becomes more advanced, RA can also affect multiple organ systems, including the eyes, skin, lungs and the cardiovascular system.
Diagnosis is through physical examination, blood tests, and X-rays.
Treatments include lifestyle modifications, several classes of medications, and sometimes surgery.
Top Symptoms: fatigue, depressed mood, joint pain, muscle aches, daytime sleepiness
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Stiff Back Treatments and Relief
Back stiffness alone is unlikely to require emergency treatment. However, it can occur as part of a cluster of symptoms indicating a serious injury or infection. In addition, some conditions that cause back stiffness can be associated with dangerous problems in other parts of the body.
Seek emergency treatment if:
- Your back stiffness and pain after an acute injury are so severe that you are unable to move.
- You are experiencing visual changes or eye pain.
- You have weakness in your legs, sensation changes in your legs or groin, and/or loss of control over bowel and bladder function.
- You have systemic symptoms such as a fever and fatigue along with severe back pain.
In some cases, even though emergency treatment isn't necessary, you may need medical evaluation and treatment.
Make an appointment with your medical provider if:
- Your back stiffness lasts more than two weeks.
- You are unable to carry out your usual activities.
- Your back stiffness is particularly severe in the mornings.
- You have pain and stiffness in other joints and/or muscles.
- You have been diagnosed with arthritis or a pain syndrome previously and your symptoms are worsening.
Your medical provider may prescribe one or more of the following treatments, depending on the cause of your stiff back:
- Physical therapy.
- Anti-inflammatory medications.
- Steroid injections into joints affected by arthritis.
- Antidepressant medications to improve pain, stiffness, and sleep if a pain syndrome is the cause.
- Referral for surgical management.
Some home treatments may help with a stiff back.
- A heating pad can help with muscle stiffness and pain.
- If your stiffness occurs after an acute back injury, applying ice can help prevent swelling.
- Continue light activity as much as possible. Bed rest can worsen back pain and stiffness.
- Ibuprofen or other NSAIDs can transiently help with pain and stiffness.
- Relaxation techniques like meditation can help relax your back muscles, resulting in decreased stiffness and discomfort.
- Massage can help make back muscles less stiff.
FAQs About Stiff Back
Here are some frequently asked questions about stiff back.
Can back stiffness in a young person be caused by arthritis?
Yes, certain types of arthritis associated with back stiffness typically occur in young people. These conditions are associated with inflammation in the joints of the spine. Ankylosing spondylitis is strongly associated with back stiffness and typically occurs in young men. Rheumatoid arthritis is often diagnosed in children and young adults; like ankylosing spondylitis, it can cause back stiffness and pain.
Is my back stiffness likely to improve?
Many causes of back stiffness will resolve over time without treatment, or with simple home treatments such as heating pads and massage. For example, a muscle strain will likely get better within weeks to months. However, back stiffness caused by a chronic medical condition such as arthritis may persist or worsen over time. See your medical provider if your back stiffness has not improved after a few weeks.
Do I need imaging to diagnose the cause of my stiff back?
Imaging is not typically the first step in evaluating a stiff back. Often, back stiffness will resolve without treatment and is not caused by a serious underlying medical condition. However, in some cases, it is a good idea to get imaging. If back stiffness occurs along with sudden pain and other worrying symptoms such as leg weakness or fevers, imaging of the back should be performed to see if spinal cord compression or infection is the cause. If arthritis is suspected, imaging can be helpful to establish a diagnosis and determine disease severity.
Why is my back particularly stiff in the morning?
Several conditions cause back pain and stiffness that are particularly severe in the morning. These include inflammatory arthritis, such as ankylosing spondylitis or rheumatoid arthritis, and the musculoskeletal inflammatory disorder polymyalgia rheumatica. If you have one of these conditions you will likely notice stiffness lasting an hour or more after waking up in the morning, and stiffness may recur if you spend a long time in one position.
Why am I having visual changes in addition to back stiffness?
Uveitis is a common complication of ankylosing spondylitis, and inflammatory arthritis. This condition involves inflammation of one of the layers of the eye, leading to eye pain, redness, and blurred vision. On the other hand, polymyalgia rheumatica, a musculoskeletal inflammatory condition, can be associated with temporal arteritis. Inflammation of the temporal artery can cause blood vessel damage that ultimately leads to visual loss. Any visual changes occurring in association with back pain or stiffness should be evaluated immediately.
Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Stiff Back
To diagnose this condition, your doctor would likely ask the following questions:
- Have you been feeling more tired than usual, lethargic or fatigued despite sleeping a normal amount?
- Is your spinal stiffness worse in the morning?
- Does your back pain radiate anywhere?
- Do food or drinks get stuck when you swallow?
The above questions are also covered by our A.I. Health Assistant.
If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions
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Stiff Back Symptom Checker Statistics
People who have experienced stiff back have also experienced:
- 16% Lower Back Pain
- 5% Back Pain
- 4% Tight, Heavy, Squeezing Chest Pain
People who have experienced stiff back were most often matched with:
- 33% Diffuse Idiopathic Skeletal Hyperostosis
- 33% Ankylosing Spondylitis
- 33% Lower Back Arthritis
People who have experienced stiff back had symptoms persist for:
- 38% Over a month
- 22% Less than a day
- 21% Less than a week
Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from visits to the Buoy AI health assistant (check it out by clicking on “Take Quiz”).