At some point in our lives, nearly everyone asks themselves, why does my lower back hurt? The most common answer is age. But there are ways to keep your back strong.
About 80 percent of adults encounter lower back muscle pain during their lives. You might sit all week and go for an intense workout on Saturday and feel a sharp lower back pain. It might go away after a few days, or you might end up with muscle spasms in your lower back that come repeatedly over a few weeks.
Some people can’t pinpoint a cause but feel lower back strain, a dull ache that stays with them most of the time. About a quarter of American adults will experience low back pain for at least a day over any three months.
Most lower back strain goes away on its own. Strains are tears in a tendon or muscle; sprains are overstretched or torn ligaments. You can get either if you lift too much weight with the wrong form.
Even if the pain is temporary, if it’s significant, seek treatment to prevent the chance that you’ll develop a chronic condition — one that lasts more than three months. If you do have a lingering issue, check out underlying causes: Sometimes the problem is kidney stones or ulcerative colitis, or you might have rheumatoid arthritis. Ankylosing spondylitis, a kind of arthritis that fuses spinal joints, runs in families.
Most often, however, it’s your lifestyle catching up with you as you age. Your first back pain usually comes between the ages of 30 and 50. As you get older, especially if you don’t exercise or do strength-training, your muscles begin to shrink. The discs in your spine lose fluid and flexibility. If you spend hours behind a wheel or computer screen, you’re more likely to have weak glutes, the muscles in your rear — and tighter hip flexor muscles. Your back must compensate. A weak core, your deeper abdominal muscles, also burdens the back.
If you get low back pain during pregnancy, it’ll probably go away once you give birth and aren’t carrying that extra weight. But if you’ve been carrying that weight for years, the pain is more likely to stick, too.
How can you keep your back pain free?
Check out the ergonomics of your work stations both in your office and at home. You need a chair with good lumbar support that is the right height for your table. You might elevate your feet on a stack of books or low stool. Try to get up to stretch during a work day.
Don’t carry around a laptop or heavy gym bag unnecessarily, and not over one shoulder. Use a backpack or carry less.
Don’t wear high heels every day — save them for big events, if at all.
Sleep on your side with a pillow between your thighs (you might check out the body pillows most often used by pregnant women). If you always sleep on your back, prop your knees with a pillow. You might need a new mattress if you feel achy in the morning. It’s a good idea to see if your back feels better if you sleep in a different bed for a few nights, perhaps at a hotel.
At the first signs of repeated back pain, up your exercise, but be careful: You might need to swim or use a cross trainer that puts less pressure on your back than running outdoors. When you exercise, be sure you are engaging your core muscles. If that’s gibberish to you, take a Pilates class. If it’s tough, the answer is: Keep going to Pilates class, but ask the teacher for help so you don’t injure yourself.
Here’s the deal: Painkillers aren’t the solution. The American College of Physicians recommends against them for back pain patients. Seek ways to stay calm. Anxiety can make you more aware of your pain, and pain tends to make people anxious, in a bad feedback loop. Anxiety can also cause insomnia, and lack of sleep also makes you more sensitive to pain.
Look into yoga, physical therapy, or both. According to a small year-long study by the Boston Medical Center comparing yoga and physical therapy for back pain patients, yoga was just as good.
Your back may be giving you a much-needed wake-up call that you’re neglecting your health. Ask yourself, “Why does my lower back hurt?” The answer may be obvious: the beer belly or long commute that cuts into your sleep.
March 27, 2020
Janet O’Dell, RN