Skip to main content

Back pain

Medically reviewed by Drugs.com. Last updated on Feb 18, 2023.

Overview

Back pain is one of the most common reasons people seek medical help or miss work. Back pain is a leading cause of disability worldwide.

Fortunately, measures can help prevent or relieve most back pain episodes, especially for people younger than age 60. If prevention fails, simple home treatment and using the body correctly often will heal the back within a few weeks. Surgery is rarely needed to treat back pain.

Symptoms

Back pain can range from a muscle aching to a shooting, burning or stabbing sensation. Also, the pain can radiate down a leg. Bending, twisting, lifting, standing or walking can make it worse.

When to see a doctor

Most back pain gradually improves with home treatment and self-care, usually within a few weeks. Contact your health care provider for back pain that:

In rare cases, back pain can signal a serious medical problem. Seek immediate care for back pain that:

Causes

Back pain often develops without a cause that shows up in a test or imaging study. Conditions commonly linked to back pain include:

Risk factors

Anyone can develop back pain, even children and teens. These factors can increase the risk of developing back pain:

Prevention

Improving one's physical condition and learning and practicing how to use the body might help prevent back pain.

To keep the back healthy and strong:

Avoid movements that twist or strain the back. To use the body properly:

Buyer beware

Because back pain is common, many products promise prevention or relief. But there's no good evidence that special shoes, shoe inserts, back supports or specially designed furniture can help.

In addition, there doesn't appear to be one type of mattress that's best for people with back pain. It's probably a matter of what feels most comfortable.

Diagnosis

Your health care provider will examine your back and assess your ability to sit, stand, walk and lift your legs. Your provider might also ask you to rate your pain on a scale of zero to 10 and talk to you about how your pain affects your daily activities.

These assessments help determine where the pain comes from, how much you can move before pain forces you to stop and whether you have muscle spasms. They also can help rule out more-serious causes of back pain.

One or more of these tests might help pinpoint the cause of the back pain:

Treatment

Most back pain gets better within a month of home treatment, especially for people younger than age 60. However, for many, the pain lasts several months.

Pain relievers and the use of heat might be all that's needed. Bed rest isn't recommended.

Continue your activities as much as you can with back pain. Try light activity, such as walking. Stop activity that increases pain, but don't avoid activity out of fear of pain. If home treatments aren't working after several weeks, your health care provider might recommend stronger medications or other therapies.

Medications

Medications depend on the type of back pain. They might include:

Physical therapy

A physical therapist can teach exercises to increase flexibility, strengthen back and abdominal muscles, and improve posture. Regular use of these techniques can help keep pain from returning. Physical therapists also will provide education about how to modify movements during an episode of back pain to avoid flaring pain symptoms while continuing to be active.

Surgical and other procedures

Procedures used to treat back pain may include:

Alternative medicine

A number of alternative treatments might ease back pain. Always discuss the benefits and risks with your health care provider before starting a new alternative therapy.

Preparing for an appointment

If your back pain persists despite home treatment, see your health care provider. Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment.

What you can do

Make a list of:

Take a family member or friend along, if possible, to help you remember the information you receive.

For back pain, questions to ask your provider include:

What to expect from your doctor

Your doctor is likely to ask you questions, including:

© 1998-2024 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). All rights reserved. Terms of use.