It's not always possible to identify the cause of back pain but it’s rarely anything serious.
Most back pain is what's known as "non-specific" (there's no obvious cause) or "mechanical" (the pain originates from the joints, bones or soft tissues in and around the spine).
This type of back pain:
- tends to get better or worse depending on your position – for example, it may feel better when sitting or lying down
- typically feels worse when moving – but it's not a good idea to avoid moving your back completely, as this can make things worse
- can develop suddenly or gradually
- might sometimes be the result of poor posture or lifting something awkwardly, but often occurs for no apparent reason
- may be due to a minor injury such as sprain (pulled ligament) or strain (pulled muscle)
- can be associated with feeling stressed or run down
- will usually start to get better within a few weeks
Medical conditions that cause back pain
Conditions that can cause back pain include:
- a slipped (prolapsed) disc (a disc of cartilage in the spine pressing on a nerve) – this can cause back pain and numbness, tingling and weakness in other parts of the body
- sciatica (irritation of the nerve that runs from the lower back to the feet) – this can cause pain, numbness, tingling and weakness in the lower back, buttocks, legs and feet
- ankylosing spondylitis (swelling of the joints in the spine) – this causes pain and stiffness that's usually worse in the morning and improves with movement
- spondylolisthesis (a bone in the spine slipping out of position) – this can cause lower back pain and stiffness, as well as numbness and a tingling sensation
These conditions are treated differently to non-specific back pain.
Very rarely, back pain can be a sign of a serious problem such as:
- a broken bone in the spine
- an infection
- cauda equina syndrome (where the nerves in the lower back become severely compressed)
If you see your GP with back pain, they will look for signs of these.
Page last reviewed: 23 January 2017
Next review due: 23 January 2020