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.

These types of back pain can be triggered by everyday activities at home or at work, or they 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
  • overstretching
  • driving or sitting in a hunched position or 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.

Who's most at risk?

Certain things can 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; read more about stopping smoking
  • being pregnant – the extra weight of carrying a baby can place additional strain on the back; read more about backache in pregnancy
  • long-term use of medication known to weaken bones – such as corticosteroids
  • being stressed or depressed

Medical conditions

In a few cases, your symptoms may suggest a specific medical condition is causing your back pain. For example:

  • pain in your lower back associated with pain, numbness and a tingling sensation that travels down one leg may be a symptom of sciatica or a slipped or prolapsed disc
  • joint pain (including in the back) when walking and stiffness first thing in the morning are symptoms of arthritis – if the pain and stiffness take more than 30 minutes to resolve on waking up, or seem to start when you stop to rest after exercise, make sure you mention this to your GP
  • shoulder pain and stiffness, which makes it difficult to dress, drive or sleep, may be a sign of frozen shoulder
  • neck pain and stiffness, headaches and back pain following an accident can be symptoms of whiplash

Rarely, back pain can be a sign of a serious condition such as a spinal fracture, an infection of the spine, or cancer.

If you see your GP with back pain, they will look for signs of these conditions. Read more about diagnosing back pain.




Page last reviewed: 03/02/2015

Next review due: 03/02/2017