Back pain - Causes

It's not always possible to identify the cause of back pain but it’s rarely anything serious.

There are different types of back pain. Most back pain is non-specific. This is when there's no clear cause. Your GP can help to find any underlying cause.

Back pain can also be mechanical. This means the pain comes from the joints, bones or soft tissues in and around the spine.

Mechanical back pain:

  • gets better or worse depending on your position, it may feel better when sitting or lying down
  • tends to feel worse when you move but it's not good to avoid moving your back completely
  • develops suddenly or gradually
  • can result from poor posture
  • might be from lifting something awkwardly
  • often happens for no clear reason
  • may come from a minor injury such as sprain or strain
  • can be linked with feeling stressed or run down
  • will usually start to get better within a few weeks

Causes of back pain

Slipped (prolapsed) disc

This is where a disc of cartilage in the spine presses on a nearby nerve. Tingling and weakness may happen in other parts of the body.

Sciatica

Sciatica is the irritation of the nerve that runs from the pelvis to the feet. This can cause pain, numbness, tingling, and weakness in the lower back, buttocks, legs and feet.

Ankylosing spondylitis

Ankylosing spondylitis is swelling of the joints in the spine. This causes pain and stiffness and it's often worse in the morning and gets better when you move.

Spondylolisthesis

This is where a bone in the spine slips out of position. This can cause lower back pain and stiffness, as well as numbness and tingling.

These conditions are treated differently from non-specific back pain.

Very rarely, back pain can be a sign of a serious problem, such as:

  • a broken bone in the spine
  • an infection
  • cauda equina syndrome (nerves in the lower back are compressed)
  • cancer

Your GP will look for these signs when you see them about back pain.


Content supplied by the NHS and adapted for Ireland by the HSE

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This project has received funding from the Government of Ireland’s Sláintecare Integration Fund 2019 under Grant Agreement Number 123.

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