Back Pain

What Is It?

Back pain can be a symptom of many different illnesses and conditions. The main cause of the pain can be a problem with the back itself or by a problem in another part of the body. In many cases, doctors can't find a cause for the pain. When a cause is found, common explanations include:

  • Stress or injury involving the back muscles, including back sprain or strain; chronic overload of back muscles caused by obesity; and short term overload of back muscles caused by any unusual stress, such as lifting or pregnancy
  • Disease or injury involving the back bones (vertebrae), including fracture from an accident or as a result of the bone-thinning disease osteoporosis
  • Degenerative arthritis, a "wear and tear" process that may be related to age, injury and genetic predisposition.
  • Disease or injury involving the spinal nerves, including nerve injury caused by a protruding disk (a fibrous cushion between vertebrae) or spinal stenosis (a narrowing of the spinal canal)

  • Kidney stones or a kidney infection (pyelonephritis)
  • Inflammatory arthritis, including ankylosing spondylitis and related conditions
  • A spinal tumor or a cancer that has spread (metastasized) to the spine from elsewhere in the body
  • Infection, which may be in the disk space, bone (osteomyelitis), abdomen, pelvis or bloodstream
  • Rarer causes include:

Symptoms

Back pain varies widely. Some symptoms (often called "red flag" symptoms) may suggest that the back pain has a more serious cause. These include fever, recent trauma, weight loss, a history of cancer and neurological symptoms, such as numbness, weakness or incontinence (involuntary loss of urine or stool).

To continue reading this article, you must login.
  • Research health conditions
  • Check your symptoms
  • Prepare for a doctor's visit or test
  • Find the best treatments and procedures for you
  • Explore options for better nutrition and exercise
Learn more about the many benefits and features of joining Harvard Health Online »