What Causes Back Pain?

Ancient medical experts believed that back pain was brought on by a fluid imbalance. Therefore, many patients with back pain were treated with bloodletting.

Today, we know that back pain can have a variety of causes. Muscle and ligament sprains cause many episodes of back pain. Problems in the internal organs or tumors can also lead to back pain by affecting nerves that emanate from the spinal column. Stress can even trigger back pain by tightening the back muscles.

In this article, we’ll discuss some of the key types and causes of back pain to help you more effectively find professional pain care. 

What Are the Types of Back Pain?

The main types of back pain are:

  • Acute back pain
  • Subacute back pain
  • Chronic back pain

Acute back pain occurs suddenly and typically resolves after a few days or weeks. It’s most often caused by abrupt injuries to the muscles or ligaments that support the spine, such as muscle strains, tears, or spasms. 

Subacute back pain may occur suddenly or gradually and typically resolves after one to three months. This type of back pain can be caused by either abrupt injuries, like muscle strains, or overuse/degenerative injuries, like a herniated disc. 

Chronic back pain is often considered the most severe. It’s defined as pain that develops quickly or gradually, persists longer than three months, and occurs every day. Some of the most common causes of chronic back pain include spinal arthritis, herniated disc, spinal stenosis, spondylolisthesis, and degenerative disc disease.

What Organs Can Cause Lower Back Pain?

The organs that can cause lower back pain include the kidneys, colon, appendix, gallbladder, liver, pancreas, uterus, and reproductive organs. 

Let’s explore how these organs can lead to lower back pain in more detail:

  • Kidneys

Kidney stones and kidney infections can both cause lower back pain. Kidney stones can trigger pain on one or both sides of the back, typically in between the ribs and hips.

Kidney infection is a severe form of urinary tract infection also referred to as acute pyelonephritis. It may cause pain on the side of the back with the infected kidney (if the left kidney is infected, the left side of the lower back will hurt). This pain may be intense or dull and can be accompanied by fever, nausea, vomiting, and pain during urination. 

  • Colon

Ulcerative colitis, a form of inflammatory bowel disease, can lead to lower right back pain. It’s caused by chronic colon inflammation and, in addition to back pain, can trigger weight loss, fatigue, rectal pain, and diarrhea. 

  • Appendix

Appendicitis occurs when the appendix is infected or inflamed. Patients with appendicitis may have sudden pain in the lower right side of the back, possibly with fever, vomiting, and/or nausea.

  • Gallbladder

Pain in the right side of the back and upper right portion of the abdomen with serious indigestion can indicate gallbladder inflammation or dysfunction. This condition more commonly affects women than men. 

  • Liver

Back pain can stem from liver issues like liver scarring, inflammation, hepatocellular carcinoma, liver abscess, liver failure, or an enlarged liver. These conditions can also cause pain in the upper right portion of the abdomen, fatigue, reduced appetite, jaundice, and nausea. 

  • Pancreas

Pancreatitis, or inflammation of the pancreas, can trigger pain that spreads from the upper abdomen to the lower left area of the back. It may be described as a dull pain that worsens with fatty food consumption. 

  • Uterus and female reproductive organs

Lower right back pain can stem from one of many female reproductive organs. Endometriosis, for example, develops when cells akin to the uterine lining are located outside of the uterus, often on the fallopian or ovarian tubes. This may lead to pelvic pain that can spread to the lower right back. 

What Can Cause Lower Back Pain?

Muscle or tendon injuries, degenerative spinal conditions, arthritis, and disc problems can cause lower back pain

  • Muscle and tendon injuries can lead to lower back pain. These injuries most commonly include strains, which occur when a muscle or tendon in the back is stretched. With a lower back strain, you may experience stiffness, muscle spasms, and lower back pain that resolves within 10 to 14 days. 
  • Degenerative spinal conditions like degenerative disc disease, spinal stenosis, and spondylolisthesis can trigger chronic lower back pain. These conditions most often affect the lower spine because it bears significant impact and is more flexible than the upper or mid-spine. 
  • Osteoarthritis of the spinal joints can cause chronic pain and inflammation in the lower back. Known as “wear and tear” arthritis, osteoarthritis occurs as a result of repeated impact on the joints.
  • Disc problems, like a herniated disc, can lead to spinal nerve impingement. This can cause pain that radiates from the lower back down to the leg and foot. 

What Causes Hip and Lower Back Pain?

Sprains, strains, arthritis, and nerve impingement can cause hip and lower back pain. 

When a muscle, tendon, or nerve that extends over both the hip and lower back is injured, the patient may experience hip and lower back pain at the same time. Most commonly, this is a sign of a sprain or strain, which can resolve with at-home care. However, if hip and lower back pain doesn’t go away within a few weeks, becomes worse, or starts to inhibit your day-to-day activities, seek out professional medical care. 

What Can Cause Severe Lower Back Pain?

Severe lower back pain can be caused by disc problems, structural spinal issues, arthritis, spinal tumors, and spondylolisthesis. These conditions can all worsen with age and overuse, leading to severe pain and even disability. 

  • Disc problems like a herniated disc can irritate the surrounding spinal nerves, inducing radiating pain, numbness, weakness, and tingling. Without prompt treatment, this common condition can cause severe lower back pain
  • Structural spinal issues like spinal stenosis and scoliosis can trigger chronic pain and, eventually, lost mobility. Spinal stenosis occurs when the spinal canal gradually narrows, while scoliosis refers to an abnormal spinal curvature. 
  • Osteoarthritis, as aforementioned, can affect the facet joints of the spine. As the cartilage that protects these joints wears down, patients may experience worsening pain and stiffness. 
  • Spinal tumors can impinge on the spinal nerves, leading to various neurological symptoms and severe lower back pain. 
  • Spondylolisthesis is a condition that develops when a vertebra slips out of its proper position, falling onto the vertebra below. This misalignment in the spine can cause nerve impingement and worsening back pain.  

How Can You Tell if Back Pain Is Muscular or Something Else?

You can tell if your back pain is muscular if it worsens when you move, feels like a dull ache, and is accompanied by stiffness and/or soreness. Additionally, muscular back pain typically starts to go away after resting for a few days. 

Your back pain may not be muscular and indicate something else if you’re experiencing pain that radiates into the extremities. This, along with numbness, weakness, and tingling, indicates spinal nerve inflammation, which occurs with conditions like a herniated disc, spinal stenosis, and spondylolisthesis. This is also known as neuropathic pain. 

Additionally, if back pain isn’t muscular, the problem could be bone-related. This is less likely than neuropathic pain but can occur if the patient has developed bone spurs, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, cancer, or a bone infection. 

Muscular, neuropathic, and bone pain all require different back pain treatments. If your pain doesn’t go away with rest and at-home methods, your doctor can provide a diagnosis and treatment plan. 

When Does Back Pain Require Surgery?

Many people suffer from back pain as a result of traumatic and degenerative spinal disorders. These spinal disorders, such as spinal stenosis and herniated disc, put pressure on nerves within or emanating from the spinal column. This pressure on the nerves – commonly referred to as a pinched nerve – causes pain and other problems associated with these conditions.

When pinched nerves do not resolve with conservative treatments, such as physical therapy or medications, spinal decompression surgery is an option to consider. This procedure can relieve pressure on spinal nerves and dramatically reduce the patient’s back pain.

In the past, spinal fusion back surgery was routinely performed in conjunction with spinal decompression surgery to stabilize the spine. It involves fusing adjacent vertebrae at the surgical site.

Alternatives to Spinal Fusion for Back Pain

Spinal fusion back surgery eliminates the independent motion of the fused vertebrae, potentially leading to reduced mobility. Thankfully, patients today no longer need to surrender spinal motion to benefit from decompression spinal surgery.

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The TOPS™ System from Premia Spine enables spinal decompression patients to maintain their full range of spinal motion. Instead of fusing adjacent vertebrae during surgery, the surgeon implants the TOPS™ System and preserves pain-free flexion, extension, lateral bending, and axial rotation at each vertebra.

From simple conservative treatments to advanced surgical procedures, whatever the cause of your back pain, it’s comforting to know that effective treatments are available from qualified spine specialists.