The Hidden Causes of Back Pain and How to Get Relief

Pain is often brought on by poor posture and everyday tasks and activities.

April 9, 2010, 12:52 PM

April 12, 2010— -- About 85 percent of people will experience back pain in their lives, but simple things you do every day could be causing it? Dr. Mehmet Oz, host of "The Dr. Oz Show," has advice about the hidden causes of back pain and what you can do to get some relief.

Back pain is the second most common reason for visits to the doctor's office, Oz said, outnumbered only by upper-respiratory infections. It's also the leading cause of disability in Americans younger than 45, and half of all working Americans admit to having back pain symptoms each year.

Oz said that most cases of back pain are mechanical or nonorganic, meaning they are not caused by serious conditions such as arthritis or an injury such as fracture.

The spine is made up of bones cushioned by small oval pads of cartilage or discs consisting of a tough outer layer and a soft inner layer. Oz said to think of them like jelly doughnuts in between each vertebrae.

When a herniated disc occurs, a small portion of the nucleus, or the jelly, pushes out through a tear in the annulus, or the doughnut, into the spinal canal. This can irritate a nerve and result in pain, numbness or weakness in your back, as well as your leg or arm.

If you feel a shooting pain that goes below your knee, Oz said, it's serious enough to warrant medical attention. The majority of the time, habits that are associated with poor posture and daily tasks are the source of the pain.

Your spine is strong and stable when you practice good posture, but when you slouch or disrupt the alignment of the spine, your muscles and ligaments struggle to maintain balance, resulting in muscle fatigue and the onset of back pain. Slouching can put the equivalent of 100 extra pounds of stress on the lower back. For every inch your head drops forward as you're slouching, the stress on your spine increases by 10 pounds.

For more treatment options for all your aches and pains, Click HERE to visit the ABC News OnCall+ Pain Center.

Back Pain: Common Causes

The same mechanics are at play when you bend over to lift things with your back instead of your legs. The single worst movement you can make for your back's health is to bend and twist the back while trying to lift something. Oz said he often see parents doing this as they lift children out of strollers. The move leaves the discs in your back with little support, making them more likely to slide and pinch nerves.

Posture-related back pain can also result from extended sitting. On average, the body can tolerate being in one position for about 20 minutes before you need to adjust. Overly repetitious tasks can also lead to muscle fatigue or injury.

Oz said another group of people at risk for back pain are those who have a long commute to work.

People who drive cars for more than four hours a day are six times more likely to take time off work for back trouble than those who drive for less than two hours. Driving with poor posture can put the same stress on your back as carrying a 40-pound backpack.

When driving, Oz said, you should be getting out of the car to stretch every 90 minutes to avoid developing back problems.

There are also a number of things that women specifically do that cause back pain.

More than 40 percent of women who wear high heels will experience a foot injury that can lead to back pain. Heels higher than three inches put seven times as much pressure on your feet, disrupting your center of gravity and spine alignment. Oz said if you have to wear them, keep it to heels shorter than three inches.

Women are also carrying around an average of 16 pounds on their shoulders because of hand bags. Carrying a handbag that's more than 10 percent of your body weight poses serious health risks for your back, because it creates improper balance and strains your back and shoulder muscles.

Men have this problem on a smaller scale. To avoid back problems, you should never carry a wallet in your back pocket that's more than 1/4 inch thick. A thicker wallet creates a wedge that throws off the balance of the pelvis and disrupts the spine, leading to spinal problems, including arthritis.

Oz said he has whittled his down to just money and credit cards.

Back Pain Relief

First of all, don't stay in bed. Oz said you can limit movement for up to 24 hours if it hurts to move, but then you need to get up and move around. Otherwise, the muscles that support your back get weak and it's even more difficult to heal.

You can take ibuprofen or any nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug for pain relief, but a topical analgesic such as heat rubs also work. It contains the active ingredients camphor and menthol that bind to receptors found in our skin and brain that regulate our sensation of temperature. They promote a cool sensation, which helps alleviate pain.

Oz said you can also consider massage as treatment for back pain. Indeed, he said, a study showed that massage was superior to both acupuncture and self-care for back pain. In addition to its stress-reducing effects, massage helps manage pain, relieve muscle stiffness and boosts immunity by affecting vascular activity and mitigating pain response pathways.

Watch "The Dr. Oz Show" today for a discussion on disease-related causes of back pain, when surgery is necessary and the different kinds of surgical interventions available.

Click HERE for more information and to find out when to watch.

For more treatment options for all your aches and pains, CLICK HERE to visit the ABC News OnCall+ Pain Center.