Sunday, September 23, 2012

What Causes Low Back Pain?

Reminder: If you have not done so, please read the Initial Post and  Blog Information.  At the upper left of this page above my picture click on the button, Initial Post and  Blog Information.

Grab your right thumb with your left hand.  Now bend your right thumb toward your right elbow until you feel pain.  Got some pain?  Good.  Now stop bending your thumb.

How does that relate to back pain?  Bend at the waist into any position you like.  Hold that position long enough and you will eventually have pain somewhere.  Just like in your thumb, you are stretching muscles, tendons, nerves, and ligaments farther and longer than they were designed to be stretched.  You may also be compressing cartilage, discs, nerves, and bone longer and harder than they were designed to be compressed.  The pain is your body asking you to stop doing whatever it is that causes pain.  You have stressed your back.  If you stop stretching or compressing before you feel pain, or as soon as you feel pain, there is little chance you have done any permanent damage.  I.e., stop pulling on your thumb!

If you continue to pull on your thumb, or stress you back, then worse things happen.  A strain is a torn muscle or tendon.  A sprain is a torn ligament.  You can also damage nerves, tear cartilage, tear discs, and break bones, if you allow the stress to continue long enough.  Torn muscles, ligaments, and tendons take 2-12 weeks to heal, depending on how much damage you did.  Some cartilage doesn't have the blood supply to heal well, but most heals in about the same amount of time.  A bone contusion or fracture can take 6-18 weeks to heal.  Nerves can take three months to heal.

Most severely damaged tissue heals with scar tissue, which is not as strong as the original tissue.  To make up for the lost strength, surrounding tissue must be stronger than it was before the injury, or repeat injuries become common.

Chronic stress on your back causes pain, i.e. if you stretch or compress long enough you will have pain.  Poor posture, overwork, being overweight, sudden motions, etc. all can lead to back pain.  Most of our low back pain is due to accumulated stress: we sit too long with poor posture; we lift incorrectly, or too often, or too heavy an object; we weigh too much.

Some low back injuries occur from sudden changes in direction, i.e., trauma: falls, motor vehicle accidents, collisions in sports, etc.  The healing process is the same for both types of stress. 

After enough accumulated stress our pain becomes semi-permanent.  It doesn't go away when you let loose of your thumb.  Then you have to take time to heal; 2 -12 weeks.  Avoid the damage.  Change positions a lot.  Monitor your posture.  Lift with your legs and a neutral spine.  Get help lifting heavy objects.  Lose weight if necessary.  Keep active.  Exercise in moderation.  STOP WHEN YOU HAVE PAIN!


  1. Great post on what causes low back pain. You really touched based on the common reasons why people have low back pain. With daily activity and movement, chronic low back pain can be relieved.

  2. Back pain was a major problem for me as well two years ago. To treat it, I personally followed a chiropractic treatment program. The results were absolutely amazing! That's why, I highly recommend it to anyone who has the same problem !

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  4. Chiropractic treatment can be helpful, but statistically it is no more helpful than is Physical Therapy. Your results would have likely been "absolutely amazing!" no matter what you did or didn't do. A lot depends upon the reason for the back pain. Any chiropractor who takes an x-ray of your back and tells you your back is misaligned has done you a disservice, exposed you to x-rays unnecessarily (see the May 2012 post on x-rays), and taken more of your money than necessary. Read my post in July, 2012 that compares PTs to Chiropractors. Better yet, spend $5.99, read my book and see why for yourself.