It can be easy to pinpoint the cause of sudden back pain. Moving boxes. A killer workout. Shoveling snow. But it can be trickier to discover the reasons behind chronic back pain. Here, some surprising factors that may be to blame for your achy back.
You’re stressed out
“Emotional outlook is a big predictor of back pain,” says Todd Sinett, a New York City-based chiropractor and author of 3 Weeks To A Better Back. Mental distress manifests itself physiologically, says Sinett. “If you’re uptight for a long period of time, that muscle tension can lead to aches and spasms,” he says. Common areas for stress-triggered back pain include the neck and shoulder region and lower back. Try relaxation techniques like deep breathing (inhale slowly for a count of four, hold the breath for a count of four, exhale for a count of four), a walk, or yoga.
Your heels are too high
Your fashionable shoe collection might be bothering your back. “High heels throw off your center of gravity,” says William Suggs, a certified personal trainer and licensed sports nutritionist in New York City. Heels make you lean forward to walk, put extra pressure on the feet, and cause you to not fully extend the calf. This puts more strain and stress on the lower back, which can cause pain, he says. “If you must wear heels for work, invest in a nice pair of walking shoes for the commute and change at the office,” says Suggs.
Your diet is “dirty”
A 2014 study in the Asian Spine Journal found that about 31 percent of women and 25 percent of men who suffered from back pain also had gastrointestinal complaints, such as abdominal pain or food intolerance. The link between nutrition and back pain is all about inflammation; foods high in fat and sugar trigger inflammation throughout the body, including the lower back. When Sinett’s father injured his back, he saw an improvement in back pain symptoms when he cut back on sugar and caffeine. Aim for “clean” whole foods instead of processed ones whenever possible. “Always have a protein like lean meat or beans, a good whole grain like brown rice, and vegetables,” Suggs says.
Your pants are too tight
Skinny jeans could be doing a number on your back. Dr. Kenneth Hansraj, MD, chief of spine surgery at New York Spine Surgery & Rehabilitation Medicine told Shape.com
that too-tight outfits constrict the body, which limits your range of motion and can strain your back, neck, and shoulders. The biggest fashion culprits? Skinny jeans and pencil skirts. For clothes that are snug but not skintight, look for fabrics with a bit of stretch to them. Make sure you can easily slip a finger under the waistband.
You sit on your duff all day
“Inactivity is one of the most detrimental things you can do to your body,” says Suggs. “Your muscles get used to being in that seated position, so they tighten up.” To combat sitting-induced muscle stiffness and tightness, stretch your lower posterior muscles (Achilles, calves, hamstrings, and glutes) when you wake up. “When those start to tighten then your lower back starts to feel the brunt of the pain,” says Suggs. He also suggests a quick stretch midday and before bed. “It’s also a good idea to get up and walk around a few times throughout the day, and to make sure your back is supported and not slouched when you are seated, says Suggs.
You still smoke
A recent Northwestern University study found that smokers are three times more likely than nonsmokers to develop chronic back pain. “[Smoking] affects the way the brain responds to back pain and seems to make individuals less resilient to an episode of pain,” the researchers said in a news release. Smokers who quit their nicotine habit during the study period experienced a decrease in chronic pain. Previous studies found that smoking may damage tissue in the lower back by slowing down circulation, which reduces the flow of nutrients to back muscles.
You’ve been skipping ab workouts
A strong core could combat an achy back. “If your abs are weak, your lower back has to work harder, which can lead to back pain,” says Suggs. Try plank, superman, or bird dog exercises, which engage your erector spinae, the muscle that keeps your spine erect and helps maintain correct posture, he says. Pay attention to your midsection throughout the day. “Your core should never be relaxed, whether you’re sitting or walking; that’s when you put yourself at risk for developing pain,” says Suggs.
The bones of your spine have discs between them, each partly made up of a jelly-like substance that is 90 percent water. Your body needs a steady stream of fluid coming in to help keep that cushioning intact, according to the Cleveland Clinic Center for Spine Health. When your body lacks hydration, those discs become flatter and less cushiony, which can lead to pain. A good way to know if you’re drinking enough to water is to look in the toilet. Your urine should be clear or light yellow; if it’s dark yellow, grab some H20.
Your hips are uneven
Many people have no idea that their hips are uneven, which means one side of your pelvis is slightly higher than the other, says Suggs. The imbalance can cause lower back pain in your day-to-day life, and often becomes especially apparent while you work out. “It affects how your body responds to certain moves and will be different for everyone,” he says. For example, if your left hip is higher and you do a lunge on the left side, you may feel that hip muscle pull tighter. If you notice persistent back pain during a workout, Suggs suggests seeing your doctor before trying to cure yourself. “Your doctor can evaluate your whole body and detect potential imbalances,” he says.
You have a urinary tract infection
Pain in the lower and upper back or sharp pains in the flank (side) can be a sign that a urinary tract infection has spread to the kidneys. If you’ve noticed other classic UTI symptoms like increased urge to urinate or pain during urination, see a doctor immediately for treatment.