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Seven surprising causes of back pain

27 Aug 2015
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Back pain is one of the most common medical problems throughout the world.

It affects 80 percent of Australians at some time in their lives.

Severe back pain can disrupt your quality of life and limit your ability to work, exercise or even walk.

Dr Patrick Roth, MD, chairman of the department of neurosurgery at New Jersey's Hackensack University Medical Centre says for people over 60, back pain often comes from spinal stenosis, or arthritic wear and tear.

"As we age, the joints become enlarged and generate pain," says Dr Roth. But that's not always the case. In many instances, the cause of back pain can be related to lifestyle.

For example, by not lifting a heavy object properly you can throw your back off and create pain.

Here are seven other reasons that may be causing your back pain:

1. Smoking

Smoking can affect back pain in two ways. It has been show to decrease blood supply to the discs in the back, causing premature aging of discs, says Dr Vijay Vad, MD, from the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. That premature aging of the discs can cause pain in the lower back, according to a recent US study.

Another study found that smoking affects the way the brain responds to back pain and makes people less resilient to it. 

2. Sitting

"There's no question that sitting puts pressure on the discs in your back," says Dr Roth. "The pressure decreases blood supply to the discs and increases the risk of disc injury," agrees Dr Vad. If you're someone who sits at a desk all day, consider using a standing desk to alleviate the pressure on your back, or take breaks every 30 minutes or so to stretch and walk around. Walking can flush toxins and "brings nutrition to the discs," says Dr Vad.

3. Stress

"The lower back is the ultimate example of the mind-body connection," says Dr Vad. Stress can tighten your muscles and cause discs to bulge, creating pain. It can also lower your threshold for pain. "It literally stiffens you," says Dr Roth. Manage your stress with exercise, meditation, and deep breathing.

4. Flying on a plane

The next time you fly, consider checking your heavy luggage instead of storing it overhead. "The pressurised air in the cabin can irritate a disc and make it vulnerable to bulging," says Dr Vad. "So be careful lifting heavy luggage or heavy weights or doing vigorous sports right after a long flight." He suggests stretching and walking right after a flight to help minimize the risk of disc bulge.

5. Diet

It stands to reason that being overweight can put more pressure on your back and make you more susceptible to back pain. A Stanford University study found that people who are extremely overweight are at four times greater risk of having lower back pain. The study also found that doing just 20 minutes of exercise a day can reduce the risk of back pain by 32 percent. 

6. Your mattress

If you're constantly waking up with back pain, it might be that your mattress is too soft. "A medium-firm mattress is ideal for your back," says Dr. Vad. With a soft mattress, the weight on your back can be uneven and cause you pain. 

7. Talking on a mobile phone

Talking on mobile phone, especially if you use your shoulder to balance it at your ear, can create uneven pressure, causing neck pain. And that neck pain can extend to your back. Also be mindful if you text a lot — you're potentially straining your neck by looking down repeatedly. Opt for earphones when you talk on your mobile, and and cut down on texting or try to hold your phone in front of you when texting to reduce the strain on your neck.

Dr Roth says if you do have back pain returning to activity as best you can is the best thing to do.

"Movement actually makes pain better," he says.

He also recommends doing exercise as well as you can, then when the pain has passed, strengthening your core and abdominal muscles, which will help keep your back strong.

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