Overview

About 80 percent of adults experience lower back pain at least once during their lifetime. Although back pain is usually described as dull or aching, it can also feel sharp and stabbing. Many things can cause sharp lower back pain, including muscle strains, herniated disks, and kidney conditions.

Muscle strain

Muscle strains are the most common cause of lower back pain. These happen when you stretch or tear a muscle or tendon. They’re usually caused by injuries, either from sports and certain motions, such as lifting a heavy box. Muscle strains can also cause muscle spasms, which may feel like sharp jolts of pain.

Other symptoms of muscle strain in your lower back include:

  • muscle aches
  • stiffness
  • difficulty moving
  • pain radiating into your buttocks or legs

While painful, muscle strains usually go away on their own within a few weeks. In the meantime, you can try over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications to help manage your pain. Applying an ice pack or heating pad to your lower back a few times a day may also help.

Other causes

While muscle strain is the most common cause of lower back pain, several other conditions can cause it as well.

Herniated disk

A herniated disk, also known as a slipped disk, happens when one of the rubbery disks that sits between your spinal bones ruptures. They’re common in the lower back, where they sometimes put pressure on the surrounding nerves, causing a sharp pain.

Other symptoms include:

  • pain and weakness in the lower back
  • numbness or tingling
  • pain in your buttocks, thighs, or calves
  • shooting pain when you move
  • muscle spasms

Sciatica

The sciatic nerve is your largest nerve. It spans your lower back, buttocks, and legs. When something, such as a herniated disk, puts pressure on it or pinches it, you might feel a sharp pain in your lower back. This is known as sciatica. It usually only affects one side of your body.

Other symptoms include:

  • mild to excruciating pain
  • a burning sensation
  • an electric shock sensation
  • numbness and tingling
  • foot pain

If you’re having trouble finding relief from sciatica pain, try these six stretches for relief.

Compression fracture

A compression fracture in the lower back, also known as a vertebral compression fracture, happens when one of your vertebrae breaks and collapses. Injuries and underlying conditions that weaken your bones, such as osteoporosis, can cause it.

Symptoms of a compression fracture vary depending on the cause, but usually include:

  • mild to severe back pain
  • leg and arm pain
  • weakness or numbness

Spinal conditions

Some spinal conditions, such as spinal stenosis or lordosis, can also cause sharp lower back pain in both adults and children. Spinal stenosis causes the spaces in your spine to narrow, causing pain. Lordosis refers to the natural S-shaped curve of your spine. However, some people have a more dramatic curvature that causes pain. Learn more about other spinal conditions that might cause pain.

Additional symptoms of a spinal condition include:

  • tingling or numbness in the legs or feet
  • lower back pain
  • cramping in the legs
  • weakness in the legs or feet
  • pain when moving

Infections

Spinal infections can also cause sharp pain in your lower back. While most people associate tuberculosis (TB) with the lungs, it can also infect your spine. Spinal TB is rare in developed countries, but people with compromised immune systems have a higher risk of getting it.

You can also develop an abscess on your spinal cord, though this is also rare. If the abscess is large enough, it can start to put pressure on nearby nerves. Several things can cause this, including surgery complications or injuries involving a foreign object.

In addition to sharp pain that may radiate to your arms and legs, spinal infections can also cause:

  • muscle spasms
  • tenderness
  • stiffness
  • loss of bladder or bowel control
  • fever

Abdominal aortic aneurysm

Your aortic artery runs straight down the middle of your body. An abdominal aortic aneurysm happens when part of this artery’s wall becomes weakened and expands in diameter. This can happen slowly over time or very suddenly.

Symptoms include:

  • back pain that’s sometimes sudden or severe
  • pain in the abdomen or side of your abdomen
  • a pulsating feeling around your abdomen

Arthritis

Many types of arthritis, including osteoarthritis, can affect your back. When this happens, it causes the cartilage between your vertebrae to wear down, which can be painful.

Addition symptoms of arthritis in your back include:

  • stiffness that goes away after moving
  • pain that gets worse at the end of the day

For relief, try these gentle exercises for arthritis back pain.

Kidney conditions

Sometimes pain from your kidneys can be felt in your lower back, especially if you have kidney stones or a kidney infection. You’re more likely to feel kidney-related back pain on one side.

Additional symptoms of a kidney problem include:

  • fever and chills
  • pain during urination
  • frequent urination
  • pain in your side or groin
  • smelly, bloody, or cloudy urine

Causes in women

Endometriosis

Endometriosis happens when uterine tissue starts growing in parts of the body other than the uterus, such as the ovaries or fallopian tubes. It can cause severe abdominal, pelvic, and lower back pain in women.

Other endometriosis symptoms include:

  • severe pain during menstruation
  • pain during or after intercourse
  • infertility
  • bleeding or spotting between periods
  • digestive issues
  • painful bowel movements
  • painful urination during menstruation

Ovarian cysts

Ovarian cysts are small, fluid-filled bubbles that form in your ovaries. They’re fairly common and usually don’t cause symptoms. However, when they’re large, they can cause sudden pain in your pelvis that often radiates to your lower back.

Additional symptoms of ovarian cysts include:

  • feeling of fullness or pressure
  • abdominal bloating

Large ovarian cysts are more likely to rupture, which also causes sudden, severe pain. A ruptured ovarian cyst can cause internal bleeding, so call your doctor right away if you suddenly feel pain around one side of your pelvis.

Ovarian torsion

Sometimes one or both of your ovaries can twist, resulting in a condition called ovarian torsion. In many cases, the connected fallopian tube also twists.

Ovarian torsion causes severe abdominal pain that comes on rapidly and often spreads toward your lower back. Some women also have symptoms of nausea and vomiting.

This is a medical emergency that requires quick treatment to avoid permanent damage to your ovary. While you’ll likely need surgery, most women regain full function of the affected ovary.

Uterine fibroids

Fibroids are muscular tumors that are almost always noncancerous. They can form in the lining of the uterus. Some are very tiny, while others can grow to the size of a grapefruit or larger.

In addition to lower back pain, fibroids can cause:

  • heavy bleeding
  • painful periods
  • lower abdominal swelling

Pelvic inflammatory disease

Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) is a serious condition caused by an infection of the female reproductive organs. It often develops when sexually transmitted infections, such chlamydia and gonorrhea, go untreated.

Symptoms are often mild or unnoticeable, but you may experience:

  • pain in lower abdomen
  • foul-smelling vaginal discharge
  • pain or bleeding during sex
  • fever

If you think you have PID, contact your doctor immediately. You’ll need to quickly start taking antibiotics to avoid possible complications, such as infertility or an ectopic pregnancy.

Pregnancy

Up to 50 percent of pregnant women experience some type of lower back pain. It’s usually felt as pelvic girdle pain or lumbar pain.

Pelvic girdle pain, which is about four times more common than lumbar pain among pregnant women, causes sharp, stabbing pain in the lower back.

It can also cause:

  • constant pain
  • pain that comes and goes
  • pain on one or both sides of lower back
  • pain that shoots down to the thigh or calf

Lumbar pain in pregnant women resembles other chronic lower back aches in nonpregnant women. Both types of back pain typically resolve within the first few months after delivery.

Warning

  • Lower back pain is sometimes a symptom of a miscarriage when accompanied by spotting, bleeding, or unusual discharge. While several other things can cause these symptoms, it’s best to check in with your doctor to be sure.

Causes in men

Prostatitis

Prostatitis is a common condition that causes inflammation in the prostate, often due to a bacterial infection. Some cases don’t cause any symptoms, but others can cause lower back pain as well as:

  • pain in the groin, penis, scrotum, anus, or lower abdomen
  • pain during or after ejaculation or urination
  • increased urge to urinate
  • fever

Prostate cancer

Prostate cancer is cancer that begins in the prostate, a small gland near the bladder that produces fluid for semen.

In addition to lower back pain, it can also cause:

  • urinary problems
  • painful ejaculation

Learn more about prostate cancer, including its risk factors and screening guidelines.

When to see a doctor

Lower back pain usually isn’t a medical emergency. Chances are, you lifted something that was a little too heavy and ended up with a strained muscle. If you’re pregnant or have any of the following symptoms, contact your doctor as soon as possible to be on the safe side:

  • fever or chills
  • urinary or bowel incontinence
  • severe pain that doesn’t respond to over-the-counter treatments
  • a pulsating feeling in the abdomen
  • nausea or vomiting
  • difficulty walking or balancing