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To Banish Lower Back Pain, You Need to Find the Cause. Here's How

Lower back pain can be caused by a number of culprits, from posture to sleeping position.

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If you struggle with lower back pain but aren't sure exactly why, you're in good company. Studies show that it's consistently a common source of pain for American adults, but its cause remains a mystery for many people, who prefer to treat the pain itself instead.

That's likely due in part to the fact that back pain has so many potential underlying causes, which can make it tough to narrow it down. It's also understandable to just want to get rid of the pain ASAP. But once the cause is identified, back pain can often be fixed with some simple efforts.

If you've been struggling with back pain, the solution might be simpler than you think. Learn how to get rid of back pain through stretching, exercise and other drug-free treatments.

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What causes lower back pain?

The first step to relieving back pain is determining the cause. 

Sedentary living

Lack of physical activity leads to poor mobility, postural misalignments and weak muscles, all of which contribute to back pain in different ways.

  • Poor mobility: Tight muscles in your glutes and legs tug on your lumbar spine, creating an excessive lumbar curve (lordosis). Tight shoulder and upper back muscles also pull your spine out of alignment. 
  • Posture problems: If you sit a lot, you may have adopted poor posture, such as slouched shoulders, a protruding neck and an arched lower back. These posture problems can all lead to back pain. 
  • Weak muscles: Weak muscles, especially the core, hips, glutes and back muscles, fail to support your spine as well as they should. This leads to misalignment of the spine and consequently lower back pain. 
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Sleeping position

Sometimes, back pain results from funky sleeping positions. If you wake up with severe back pain that gets better throughout the day, it might be time for a new mattress or pillow to complement your natural sleeping position.

Muscle injuries

Strains (pulled muscles or tendons) and sprains (torn ligaments) are commonly linked to lower back pain. Both types of injuries occur when you push your body past its normal range of motion or lift loads heavier than you can handle.

Joint inflammation

Inflamed joints, especially lumbar vertebrae and hip joints, can cause serious lower back pain. Joint inflammation may result from normal wear-and-tear (arthritis) or an injury. 

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Spinal injuries and conditions

Sometimes lower back pain is directly related to a spinal disorder or injury, such as:

  • Herniated disc: a spinal disc injury that occurs when the jelly-like interior of a disc protrudes through a tear in the outer layer of the disc
  • Spinal stenosis: narrowing of the spinal column
  • Spondylitis: inflammation of joints between vertebrae 
  • Spondylosis: a degenerative spinal disorder that can cause loss of normal spinal function
  • Degenerative disc disease: osteoporosis (bone degeneration) of the spine

Sciatica

Your sciatic nerve runs from your lower back all the way through your legs. Sciatica occurs when the sciatic nerve gets compressed or irritated, and it sends shooting pain through your hips and legs. Sciatica pain often feels like a jolt in response to sneezing and coughing, or sitting down or standing up too quickly.

three massage guns

Percussive therapy is one drug-free treatment for back pain.

Sarah Mitroff/CNET

Drug-free treatments for lower back pain

It's common to pop an over-the-counter pain reliever or even ask a doctor for a prescription to treat an achy back. Pain medications have their place, but you might be able to find relief from back pain with these drug-free treatment options.

Corrective exercise

Many people avoid exercise when their back hurts, assuming exercise will make it worse. In the case of injuries, this is true if you aren't careful. But exercise is actually an effective antidote to back pain

Weak muscles -- especially weak core, glute and back muscles -- don't support your spine as well as they should. The result: Nagging chronic back pain. Corrective exercise targets those weak muscle groups and fixes postural misalignments to relieve pain.

Low-impact workouts such as swimming, water aerobics and recumbent cycling also keep your back healthy and strong. 

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Stretching and mobilization

Often rooted in inflexibility, back pain may disappear with a consistent and targeted stretching routine. 

Tight hips, quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes contribute to lower back pain because of the way these tight muscles tug on your spine. They can cause chronic postural misalignments and muscular imbalances that cause pain in seemingly unconnected areas -- your back being the primary one. 

Try stretching your hips, quads and hamstrings every evening before bed. Toss in a few gentle seated spinal twists if the movement doesn't cause pain. With consistent practice, you may notice your back pain is less severe. 

Heat and cold therapy 

For temporary relief from back pain, try using a heating pad or cold compress. Cold reduces inflammation and constricts blood flow, while heat relaxes muscles and dilates blood vessels. Both can treat back pain depending on the cause. A good rule of thumb to remember is that heat works best for soreness and cold works best for injuries.

omron avail

TENS units like the Omron Avail can temporarily relieve chronic pain.

Omron

TENS therapy

Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, or TENS, is a type of therapy that stimulates nerves at pain sites. Using electrodes placed on your skin, a TENS device emits gentle electric signals that mask or intercept the pain signals your body sends to your brain. 

Massage

Massage therapy relieves musculoskeletal pain from muscle knots and adhesions. It also promotes increased blood flow, which helps deliver more oxygen and nutrients to tight muscles. If your back pain stems from an injury, massage might not be the best option for you. Talk to your doctor if you aren't sure. 

If you love massages but can't fork out the cost of one every week, consider investing in a percussive massage gun. There are plenty of low- to moderately priced options these days, and a one-time investment can replicate the benefits of traditional massage therapy. To treat back pain with percussive massage, start on the lowest setting of your device and slowly increase pressure if you feel you can handle it.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.