Causes of back pain 

Your back is a complex structure made up of bones, muscles, nerves and joints. This can often make it difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of the pain.

Most cases of back pain aren't caused by serious damage or disease but by minor sprains, strains or injuries, or a pinched or irritated nerve.

Back pain can be triggered by everyday activities at home or at work, or it can develop gradually, over time. Possible causes of back pain include:

  • bending awkwardly or for long periods
  • lifting, carrying, pushing or pulling heavy objects 
  • slouching in chairs
  • twisting awkwardly
  • over-stretching
  • driving in a hunched position or driving for long periods without taking a break
  • overusing the muscles - for example, during sport or repetitive movements (repetitive strain injury

Back pain sometimes develops suddenly for no apparent reason. For example, you may wake up one morning with back pain and have no idea what's caused it.

Risk factors

Certain risk factors increase your chances of developing back pain. These include:

  • being overweight - the extra weight puts pressure on the spine; you can use the BMI healthy weight calculator to find out if you need to lose weight 
  • smoking - this may be due to tissue damage in the back caused by smoking or the fact that people who smoke tend to have unhealthier lifestyles than people who don't smoke; get help quitting 
  • being pregnant - the extra weight of carrying a baby can place additional strain on the back
  • long-term use of medication known to weaken bones - such as corticosteroids
  • stress - stress is thought to cause tension in the back muscles which can lead to back pain
  • depression - back pain can make you feel depressed, which can sometimes result in weight gain which leads to increased pain and worsening depression

Read more about medical tests for back pain.

In a small number of cases, back pain is caused by a specific medical condition such as: 

Read about treating back pain

Healthy back at work

Trevor Shaw, principal ergonomist, explains how bad posture contributes to health problems including back pain. He describes how to improve your health at work.

Media last reviewed: 02/10/2013

Next review due: 02/10/2015

Back pain guide

Back pain guide

Explore this guide for information about different types of back pain, ways of preventing it and advice on treatment

Page last reviewed: 21/02/2013

Next review due: 21/02/2015