The 3 Most Common Causes of Lower Back Pain and How to Find Relief

Lower back pain is an extremely common problem that affects millions of people. In fact, around 80% of adults experience lower back pain at some point in their lives. While there are many potential causes, most cases of lower back pain can be traced back to just a few common culprits. Read on to learn about the 3 leading causes of lower back pain and how you can find relief.


Before diving into the specific causes, it helps to have a basic understanding of the anatomy of the back. The lumbar region (lower back) includes the five vertebrae between the ribs and pelvis. This area bears the brunt of the weight of the upper body. The lower back is also under constant stress from daily activities like lifting, twisting, and bending. It’s no wonder this part of the spine is susceptible to injury and pain.

When lower back pain strikes, it can be debilitating and disrupt your work, exercise routine, and quality of life. The pain can range from a dull ache to a sharp, piercing sensation. While severe cases may require surgery, most people can manage their back pain through more conservative treatments. But in order to find the right solution, it helps to identify the underlying cause of the pain first.

1. Muscle Strains and Sprains

The most common source of lower back pain is an injury to the muscles, tendons, or ligaments. Called musculoligamentous injuries, they include:

  • Strains – overstretched or partially torn muscles
  • Sprains – overstretched or partially torn ligaments

These injuries are commonly caused by:

  • Improper lifting: using the back instead of the legs
  • Twisting while lifting heavy objects
  • Lack of flexibility
  • Weak core muscles
  • Poor posture
  • An accident or traumatic fall

Symptoms include anything from a dull ache to sharp pain at the site of the injury. The pain may come on suddenly or worsen with certain movements. Rest, ice packs, OTC pain relievers, massage, and gentle stretches can help relax the muscles and promote healing. Preventing future back strains and sprains involves improving lifting technique, working on flexibility and core strength, and maintaining good posture.

2. Bulging or Ruptured Discs

The spine’s intervertebral discs provide cushioning between each vertebra. Each disc has a tough outer layer and a soft, gel-like interior. If too much pressure is placed on a disc, it can lead to a disc injury:

  • Bulging disc – The outer layer remains intact but the interior gel bulges out.
  • Herniated (ruptured) disc – The interior gel pushes completely through the outer layer.

Disc injuries often occur in people who lift heavy objects, drive trucks or other vehicles professionally, or participate in contact sports. Genetics also play a role.

A disc bulge or rupture can cause severe lower back pain that may extend into the buttocks and legs. The pain often worsens with sitting, standing, sneezing, or coughing. Treatments include OTC or prescription medication, physical therapy, massage, chiropractic adjustment, and steroid injections. In severe cases, surgery may be needed to remove or repair the damaged disc.

3. Spinal Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common form of arthritis and a frequent cause of back pain in older adults. It occurs when the cartilage that cushions joints gradually wears away over time. In the spine, this causes bones to rub together resulting in stiffness, pain, and loss of flexibility.

Risk factors for spinal OA include:

  • Obesity
  • Age over 50 years
  • Joint injuries
  • Genetics
  • Improper lifting or posture over many years

Spinal OA can occur in both the lower back and neck. Symptoms include chronic stiffness and pain that worsen with activity and improve with rest. Anti-inflammatory medication, exercise, physical therapy, massage, and chiropractic adjustment may help manage pain and stiffness. For severe cases, surgery like spinal fusion may be required. Keeping a healthy weight and building muscle strength through exercise are key to preventing spinal OA.


Lower back pain has many potential causes. But muscle strains and sprains, bulging/ruptured discs, and spinal osteoarthritis account for most cases. Fortunately, there are treatments available ranging from home remedies to surgery for severe or unresponsive pain. Work on preventing back injuries by lifting properly and building core muscle strength. See a doctor if pain persists for more than a few days to determine the underlying cause and appropriate treatment. With some patience and care, most back pain will resolve allowing you to get back to your active life.

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