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What causes low back pain? 33 possible conditions

Lower Back Pain Overview

Lower back pain is a common cause for visits to the doctor. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), low back pain is the second most common neurological problem in the U.S., and Americans spend an average of $50 billion per year treating low back pain. (NINDS, 2012)

Most low back pain is the result of an injury, such as muscle sprains or strains due to sudden movements or poor body mechanics while lifting heavy objects. But low back pain can also be caused by certain diseases, such as cancer of the spinal cord, ruptured or herniated disc, sciatica, arthritis, kidney infections, or infections of the spine. Acute back pain can last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, while chronic back pain is pain that lasts longer than three months.

Lower back pain is more likely to occur in individuals between the ages of 30 and 50. This is partly due to the changes that occur in the body with aging. As you grow older, the fluid content between the vertebrae in the spine becomes reduced, which means discs in the spine are more easily irritated. Some muscle tone is also lost, which makes the back more prone to injury. This is why strengthening your back muscles and using good body mechanics are helpful in preventing lower back pain.

Causes of Lower Back Pain


The muscles and ligaments in the back can be stretched or torn due to over-activity. Symptoms include pain and stiffness in the lower back, as well as muscle spasms. These symptoms tend to be relieved with rest and physical therapy.

Disc Injury

The discs in the back are prone to injury, and this risk increases with age. The outside of the disc can be torn or may be herniated. A herniated disc (also called a slipped or ruptured disc) and occurs when the cartilage surrounding the disc pushes against the spinal cord or nerve roots. The cushion that sits between the spinal vertebrae is pushed outside its normal position. This can result in compression of the nerve root as it exits from the spinal cord and through the vertebral bones. Disc injury usually occurs suddenly after lifting something or twisting the back. Unlike a back strain, pain from a disc injury usually lasts for more than 72 hours.


Sciatica can occur with a herniated disc if the disc presses on the sciatic nerve. The sciatic nerve connects the spine to the legs. As a result, sciatica can cause pain in the legs and feet. This pain is usually felt as a burning or pins-and-needles sensation.

Spinal Stenosis

Spinal stenosis is when the spinal column narrows, putting pressure on the spinal cord and spinal nerves. Spinal stenosis is most commonly caused by degeneration of the discs between the vertebrae. The result is compression of the nerve roots or spinal cord by bony spurs or soft tissues, such as discs. Symptoms are usually caused by the pressure on the spinal nerves and may include numbness, cramping, and weakness. These symptoms may be felt anywhere in the body. Many people with spinal stenosis notice their symptoms worsen when standing or walking.

Abnormal Spine Curvatures

Scoliosis, kyphosis, and lordosis are all conditions that cause abnormal curvatures in the spine. These are congenital conditions and are usually diagnosed in children and teenagers. The abnormal curvature places pressure on the muscles, tendons, ligaments, and vertebrae, causing pain and poor posture.

Other Conditions

Along with the above conditions, there are a number of other conditions that cause lower back pain. These conditions include:

  • arthritis (Lumbar osteoarthritis is a very painful condition which affects the lower back)
  • fibromyalgia - long-term pain and tenderness in the joints, muscles, and tendons
  • spondylitis - inflammation of the joints between the spinal bones
  • spondylosis (spinal osteoarthritis) is a degenerative disorder that may cause loss of normal spinal structure and function. Although aging is the primary cause, the location and rate of degeneration is individual.
  • kidney and bladder problems (severe infections of the bladder can cause low back pain)
  • pregnancy (due to the increased strain on the lower back and the change in body posture)
  • endometriosis - a painful condition where cells from the uterus grow in other parts of the body
  • ovarian cysts - a fluid-filled growth on the inside or outside of an ovary
  • uterine fibroids - non-cancerous tumors in the uterus
  • cancer

Low Back Pain Tests

Most doctors begin by conducting a physical examination to determine where you are feeling the pain, as well as if your range of motion has been affected. Your doctor may also check your reflexes and your response to certain sensations. This is done to determine if your nerves are affected by your lower back problem. Unless you have concerning or debilitating symptoms, your doctor will probably monitor your condition for a few weeks before sending you for testing. This is because most lower back pain resolves using simple self-care treatments.

If you are experiencing certain symptoms like lack of bowel control, weakness, fever, or weight loss, or your low back pain remains after several weeks of home treatment, your doctor may wish to send you for tests. Seek medical attention immediately if you are experiencing any of these symptoms in addition to lower back pain.

Imaging tests include X-rays, computerized tomography (CT) scans, ultrasound, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), may be ordered so your doctor can check for bone problems, disc problems, or problems with the ligaments and tendons in your back.

If your doctor suspects a problem with the bones in your back, they may send you for a bone scan or bone density test. Electromyography (EMG) or nerve conduction tests can be ordered if a problem with your nerves is suspected.

Low Back Pain Treatment

Home Care

Self-care methods are suggested for the first 72 hours after the pain began. If the pain is not getting better after 72 hours of home treatment, you should call your doctor. Self-care includes:

  • rest - stop your normal physical activities for a couple days
  • applying ice - generally doctors recommend using ice for the first 48 to 72 hours then switching to heat
  • RICE protocol (rest, ice, compression and elevation) is recommended within the first 48 hours
  • alternating ice packs with a heating pad to relax muscles
  • taking over-the-counter pain medication like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) can relieve pain and inflammation
  • sometimes lying on your back causes more discomfort; if so, trying lying on your side with your knees bent and a pillow between your legs; if you are lying on your back reasonably comfortably, it is helpful to place a pillow or rolled-up towel beneath your legs to elevate your feet to reduce the pressure on the lower back
  • a warm bath can often relax stiff and knotted muscles in the back
  • massage

Medical Treatment

Because the cause of typical lower back pain is related to a number of different things, including muscle strain and weakness, pinched nerves, and spinal cord misalignment, there is a wide variety of medical treatments such as medications, medical appliances, and physical therapy. Your doctor will determine the appropriate dosage and application of drugs and medications based on your symptoms. Medical treatment for low back pain may include:

  • muscle relaxants
  • non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • narcotic drugs (such as codeine) for pain relief
  • steroids (to reduce inflammation)
  • corticosteroid injections
  • physical therapy, including massage, stretching, strengthening exercises, and back and spinal manipulation


For severe cases, surgery may be required. As back surgery can be invasive, surgery is usually only considered when all other options have been exhausted and your doctor knows the cause of your lower back pain. Different potential surgical procedures include:

  • discectomy - to take pressure off a nerve root being pressed on by a bulging disc or bone spur, the surgeon will remove a small piece of the lamina, a bony part of the spinal canal
  • foraminotomy - a surgical procedure that opens up the foramen, the bony hole in the spinal canal where the nerve root exits
  • IntraDiscal Electrothermal Therapy (IDET) - involves inserting a needle through a catheter into the disc and heating it up for 20 minutes, which makes the disc wall thicker and cuts down on the inner disc’s bulging and irritation of the nerve
  • nucleoplasty - a wand-like device is inserted through a needle into the disc so inner disc material can be removed; the device then uses radio waves to heat the tissue and shrink it
  • radiofrequency lesioning - a way to use radio waves to interrupt the way the nerves communicate with each other; a special needle is inserted into the nerves and is heated, which destroys the nerves
  • spinal fusion - in order to make the spine stronger and cut down on painful motion, the discs between two or more of the vertebrae are removed and the vertebrae next to each other are fused with bone grafts and/or special metal screws
  • spinal laminectomy - also called spinal decompression, this surgical technique removes the lamina to make the size of the spinal canal bigger, which relieves pressure on the spinal cord and nerves.

Prevention of Low Back Pain

There are many ways in which low back pain can be prevented. Practicing prevention techniques may also help to lessen the severity of your symptoms should you experience a lower back injury. Prevention involves:

  • exercising the muscles in your abdomen and back
  • losing weight if you are overweight
  • lifting items properly by bending at the knees and lifting with the legs
  • maintaining proper posture
  • sleeping on a firm surface
  • sitting on supportive chairs that are at the correct height
  • avoiding high-heeled shoes
  • quitting smoking – nicotine degenerates spinal discs and also reduces blood flow

Article Sources:

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See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.


Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID)

Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) is an infection of the reproductive organs in women. It's marked by pain in the abdomen, especially during urination or sex.

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Slipped (Herniated) Disk

The vertebrae in your spine are cushioned by disks composed of a hard outer ring with a gelatinous material inside. Injury or weakness can cause the inner portion of the disk to break through the outer portion.

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The sciatic nerve begins at the spinal cord, stretching through the hips and buttocks, and down each leg. When this nerve is irritated, you will experience sciatica, a painful, weak, or numb sensation in these areas.

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Kidney Stones

Kidney stones are solid masses of crystalized calcium or other substances that originate in the kidneys but can pass through the urinary tract. The greatest risk factor is making less than one liter of urine per day.

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Spinal Stenosis

Spinal stenosis is a condition in which the spinal column narrows, gradually compressing the spinal cord. If the narrowing is minimal, symptoms won't occur. Too much narrowing can compress the nerves and cause problems.

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Prostatitis is inflammation of the prostate gland, which produces a fluid found in semen. The inflammation may spread to the area around the prostate. Causes include bladder infection, STDs, and injuries to the prostate.

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PMS (Premenstrual Syndrome)

PMS symptoms start five to 11 days before menstruation and typically go away once menstruation begins. The cause of PMS is unknown.

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Endometriosis is a disorder in which the tissue that forms the lining of your uterus grows outside of your uterine cavity. The lining is called the endometrium.

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Spinal Cord Abscess

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

Spinal cord abscess (SCA) is a rare condition capable of causing permanent damage to the spinal cord. Abscesses are caused when injured tissue becomes infected. The body's immune system sends white blood cells to hel...

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Ankylosing Spondylitis

Ankylosing spondylitis is a form of arthritis that primarily affects your spine. It causes severe inflammation of the vertebrae that might eventually lead to chronic pain and disability.

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Threatened Abortion

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

Threatened abortion describes vaginal bleeding in early pregnancy. It could indicate risk of miscarriage. During miscarriage, women may have abdominal and lower back pain, and may pass clot-like material from the vagina.

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Prostate Cancer Overview

Learn prostate cancer information, causes, symptoms and treatments.

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Cervical Dysplasia

Cervical dysplasia is a condition in which healthy cells on the cervix undergo some abnormal changes. The cervix is the lower part of the uterus that leads into the vagina. It is the cervix that dilates durin...

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Miscarriage (spontaneous abortion) is an event that results in the loss of a fetus during early pregnancy. There are many types and causes. Symptoms include heavy spotting, vaginal bleeding, abdominal pain, and more.

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Chronic Nonbacterial Prostatitis

Chronic nonbacterial prostatitis causes pain and inflammation in the prostate and the lower urinary tract in men. It's a common condition, especially in men between the ages of 35 and 50 and the cause is often unknown.

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What is Fibromyalgia?

Fibromyalgia is a chronic disorder characterized by widespread, unexplained pain in tender points in muscles and joints, including the head, neck, and sides of hips.

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Uterine Prolapse

If the muscles or ligaments that hold the uterus (womb) in place stretch or become weak, prolapse occurs. Uterine prolapse occurs when the uterus sags or slips from its normal position and into the vagina (birth canal).

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Sprains & Strains

Sprains and strains are injuries to the body, often resulting from physical activity. These injuries are common and can range from minor to severe, depending on the incident. Most don't require medical attention.

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Scoliosis is an unnatural curvature of the spine. The normal shape of the spine includes a top-of-the-shoulder curve and a lower back curve. Scoliosis causes the spine to curve from side to side or in an "S" or "C...

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Kyphosis, also known as a round back or hunchback, is a condition in which the spine in the upper back has an excessive curvature. The upper back, or thoracic region of the spine, is supposed to have a slight natura...

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This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose.
Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.