Low back pain is pain and stiffness in the small of the back. With low back pain, pain may also occur in the buttocks or legs. Simple exercises and good posture can help most cases of low back pain. In a few cases, medications, physical therapy or surgery may be needed.

The spine is made up of ring-like bones called vertebrae. The vertebrae are stacked on top of each other and form a strong column that keeps the head and body standing up. Between each vertebra is a jelly-like disk that has a tough outside edge. These disks are like cushions between the vertebrae. Muscles and tissues hold vertebrae in the right place. The lower back consists of five vertebrae. These vertebrae make up the inward curve of the lower back.

What causes low back pain?

The most common cause of low back pain is overstretched or injured muscles that support the lower back. Muscles and connective tissues can become hurt from lifting or carrying heavy objects incorrectly. Muscles in the back can also become weak from a lack of exercise. Exercises to make the muscles in the back and abdomen strong can lessen pain. Low back pain can also be caused by:

  • Bad posture
  • Standing or sitting in the same place for a long time
  • "Slipped" disk; a "slipped" disk is when a disk between vertebrae bulges past the bones and presses against a nerve
  • Being very overweight
  • Osteoporosis (thinning of bone)
  • Osteoarthritis, which is the breakdown of tissues or bones of the joint
  • Fibromyalgia, which is an illness that causes achy, tender muscles; the person with fibromyalgia may also sleep poorly, have headaches, and often feel tired
  • Serious illnesses such as cancer, infection, or another illness can cause low back pain, but this is rare

How is low back pain treated?

Many times, low back pain can be helped by exercise and keeping good posture while sitting, standing, and sleeping. You can also learn ways to protect your back when bending, lifting, and exercising. People who are overweight might lessen low back pain by losing weight.

What can I do if I have low back pain?


  • If you stand in the same place for a long time, rest one foot on a low stool. While working in the kitchen, open the cabinet under the sink and rest your foot on the inside of the cabinet. Change feet every 5 to 15 minutes.
  • Keep good posture by standing with your head up, shoulders straight, chest forward, weight balanced evenly on both feet, and hips tucked in.


  • Make sure your chair has good lower back support. The back of the chair should be curved to give support where the small of the back meets the chair.
  • Keep your knees a little higher than your hips by using a foot rest or stool.
  • Don't twist at the waist while sitting. Instead, turn your whole body.


  • Sleep on your side with your knees bent. You can also put a pillow between your knees.
  • Try not to sleep on your stomach.

Lifting objects

  • Before you lift a heavy object, get a firm footing. Bend your knees to lower yourself to the level of the object, keeping your lower back straight. Tighten your stomach muscles and lift the object using your leg muscles. Don't jerk the object up to your body. Never bend from the waist with your knees straight.
  • If you are lifting an object from a table, slide it to the edge of the table so that you can hold it close to your body. Bend your knees so that you are close to the object. Use your legs to lift the object and come to a standing position.
  • Avoid lifting heavy objects above waist level.
  • Hold packages close to your body with your arms bent.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 04/23/2013.


  • National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Low Back Pain Fact Sheet. Accessed 4/23/2013
  • American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Low Back Pain. Accessed 4/23/2013
  • American Chiropractic Association. Back Pain Facts & Statistics. Accessed 4/23/2013
  • Bhangle SD, Sapru S, Panush RS. Back pain made simple: an approach based on principles and evidence. Cleve Clin J Med. 2009;76:393–399

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