Pain in your back can keep you from working and living your normal life. There are so many possible reasons for your back pain that it’s wise to see your healthcare provider soon instead of trying to figure it out yourself. You may have something common like a muscle strain or there could be an underlying condition like kidney stones or endometriosis.
Pain in your back can be an annoying ache, or it can get so bad that it’s unbearable. Back pain is the second most common reason why people visit their healthcare providers (just after colds). Many people miss work because of it. Around 80% to 90% of people in the United States will have back pain at some point in their lives.
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Back pain is categorized in a number of ways by medical professionals. You can describe your back pain by its location: upper, middle or lower back pain that’s on the left side, center or right side. You may also define different types of pain to your healthcare provider. Is your pain mild, moderate or severe? Is the pain a broad ache or a smaller sharp stab? Also, back pain can be categorized by how long it lasts. An acute episode is one that is sudden and brief, and often related to an injury. Chronic/persistent means your back pain has lasted more than three to six months.
Back pain is very common. Daily, about 2% of the U.S. workforce is disabled by back pain, which is the most common reason cited for an inability to perform daily tasks.
The older you are, the more likely you are to experience back pain. You’re also at a higher risk if you:
There are causes of local back pain (pain in your spine, muscles and other tissues in your back) and then there are causes of radiating back pain (pain from a problem in an organ that spreads to or feels like it's in your back). Examples of both include:
Back pain in your spine may be caused by:
Back pain localized in your tissues may be caused by:
Radiating back pain may be caused by:
In women or people assigned female at birth (AFAB), radiating back pain may be caused by:
In men or people assigned male at birth (AMAB), radiating back pain may be caused by:
Back pain can last a day, a few weeks, months or a lifetime. The length of time depends on the cause and the treatment.
It can be. Many people who are pregnant experience back pain.
It’s extremely rare – only about 1% of the time will back pain be a sign of cancer.
In many cases, your healthcare provider may get all the information they need from interviewing you about your symptoms, health history and lifestyle and then doing an exam. However, sometimes image tests are necessary. These may include:
Your primary healthcare provider is often able to determine the cause and diagnose your back pain. If needed, they’ll send you to a specialist and/or order tests. Possible specialists include:
Your healthcare provider may also recommend a therapist or psychiatrist if you’re struggling to cope with your pain.
Your healthcare provider will ask if you injured yourself, how long you’ve had back pain and how severe your pain is. They need to know other medical problems you have and what medications you take. If you have family members who have had similar issues, let your provider know. They might also ask questions such as:
This depends on the cause of your back pain. If your pain is caused by an infection, for example, it might go away after the course of antibiotic is complete. If your pain is caused by spinal degeneration, you may need treatment through your lifetime.
The cause of your back pain determines the treatment. For your back pain you may feel better with:
If you had an acute injury, use a cold pack for 20 to 30 minutes at a time for the first 48 hours or so. After that (or if there was no acute injury), you may find it helps more to alternate a cold pack and a heating pad. Keep one on the area for 20 to 30 minutes, and then switch. Take over-the-counter pain medications like ibuprofen (Advil®) or acetaminophen (Tylenol®). Get plenty of rest and fluids.
If you see your provider, make sure you take all medications prescribed, get all of your testing done and attend all of your appointments.
It may feel most comfortable to sleep on your back with a pillow under your knees to relieve pressure on your back. If this isn’t comfortable for you, try sleeping on your side with a pillow between your knees. Avoid sleeping on your stomach.
Possible ways to reduce your risk of back pain include:
Back pain may go away on its own in some cases, but it’s best to get treatment, especially if you don’t know the cause.
Talk to your healthcare provider about a timeline regarding when you can get back to daily activities. You may need to take time off work to rest, or you may be able to go as long as you follow your providers’ recommended treatments. Don’t guess about when you’ll be ready — confirm it with your provider.
Yes, muscles and bones can get sore again.
See your healthcare provider about your back pain if it’s severe or doesn’t get better after a few weeks. See them immediately if:
If your pain isn’t any better after four to seven days of treatment, you should contact your healthcare provider again. See your provider again as soon as possible if you now have back pain plus:
See your provider and get treatment soon so that you don’t have to suffer from back pain. Some of the questions you may want to ask them include:
Call 911 or go to the emergency department if:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Back paincan be very frustrating and interrupt your daily life. There are many treatment options to help your back pain and get back to daily activities. See your healthcare provider to discuss your options. They're there to help.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 02/03/2022.
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