Causes of Back Pain


Back pain/discomfort is in the top 3 reasons a person will see a medical doctor and the number 1 reason a person will see a chiropractor. Back pain is clearly a problem that affects a lot of people. This article is to give you a better understanding of what can cause back pain. Understanding what causes back pain can help us to prevent and relieve back pain.

Below is a list of common back pain causes:

  • Muscle Strain
  • Ligament Sprain
  • Lumbar herniated disc.
  • Degenerative disc disease / Osteoarthritis
  • Facet joint dysfunction
  • Sacroiliac joint dysfunction

Muscle strains and ligament sprains are the most common reasons for back pain. If a muscle or ligament is overstretched and tears, even just a little bit, it can cause pain. The more tearing there is, the more severe the sprain/strain. A sprain/strain will cause pain with movement and often has swelling and tenderness associated with it.

Common causes of sprain/strain:

  • Fall or injury
  • Poor posture
  • Repetitive motions

A herniated disc causes significant pain because the disc between the vertebrae pushes on the nearby nerve root. Any pressure on the nerve can cause pain, numbness, tingling and/or weakness. Because the pressure is on the root of the nerve, the pain can travel (radiating pain) all the way to the ends of the extremity (hands and feet) that the nerve goes to. The radiation can also be felt on any part of the extremity (front, side or back). The amount of pressure on the nerve determines how severe the symptoms will be. The more pressure, the more severe the symptoms. If the disc ruptures, the jelly-like center of the disc leaks out and coats the nerve. This will result in severe and often debilitating pain.

Degenerative disc disease, osteoarthritis, degenerative joint disease and degeneration are synonyms. They mean the same thing. The space between the vertebrae is getting closer together. The closer the bones get together the more damage happens to the joint. The more damage, the more symptoms. Mild degeneration can cause discomfort, stiffness in the joints, and tightness in the surrounding muscles. As degeneration progresses the symptoms worsen. Severe degeneration can cause pain, pressure on nerves (which can cause numbness, tingling, burning, weakness), inflammation, and decreased ability to move the degenerated area.

Facet joint dysfunction is caused when the facets (joints of the vertebrae) are irritated by a physical stress. Most common symptoms are tenderness over the affected area, muscle tightness and difficulty standing up straight. More severe cases also present radiating pain (pain that travels). Facet radiation is often less extended than a herniated disc. Facet radiating pain is often closer to the spine and along the back of the body. For example, facet joint dysfunction in the low back could cause radiation into the buttocks and down the back of the leg, often not going past the knee. Facet joint dysfunction in the neck could cause radiating pain into the shoulders and down the back of the arms, often not going past the elbow.


Sacroiliac joint dysfunction is when one or both of the sacroiliac (SI joints) become irritated. The SI joint is where the sacrum connects to the pelvis. This joint is designed to absorb shock between the upper and lower body. If this joint (or joints) become inflamed or irritated the pain is typically felt in the back, hip and/or groin area. If the joint is stiff or not moving properly, the pain is usually one sided, into the buttocks and sometimes mimics sciatica and the pain is felt down the leg.

Trauma, fracture, infection, tumor, autoimmune disorders, congenital disorders, etc… can also cause back pain. It is important to have a trained specialist help identify the cause of your back pain so that you can get the proper treatment.

In some cases, an exam and orthopedic tests can identify the cause. Other cases may require imaging, such as x-ray, MRI or CT scan. Occasionally, blood work may be necessary to identify the cause.

In Summary: Back pain has many causes and the treatment differs with each cause. The doctors at Total Health Chiropractic can perform exams, orthopedic tests and x-rays to help determine the cause of your pain and/or your next step to find relief.

Kathryn Haynes, D.C.