Common Causes of Low Back Pain

Keith Brofsky/Photodisc/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- Low back pain is one of the most disabling conditions in the U.S., and experts say that 80 percent of Americans will suffer from it at some point in their lives.  It's estimated that back pain costs more than $90 billion a year in lost productivity and work days.

While back pain can be debilitating for many who live with it, in most cases it can be treated non-surgically, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.  Exercise and staying fit are among the best treatments, back specialists say.  Lifting objects using the legs while holding objects away from the body is one of the best ways to prevent it.

There are numerous causes for low back pain, ranging from muscle strains to ordinary daily activities that people don't realize can lead to back problems.  ABC News talked to several experts about some of these lesser-known causes of lower back pain.

Obesity

Overweight and obese adults are more likely to have disc degeneration in their lower back than normal-weight adults, according to a new study published in the journal Arthritis & Rheumatism.

Disc degeneration occurs when the discs of the spine start to break down, and it sometimes causes low back pain.  While disc degeneration is part of the normal aging process, researchers in China found that among 2,599 Chinese men and women, body mass index (BMI) was significantly higher in people with disc degeneration.

They also found that underweight participants were significantly less likely to have degenerative disc disease.

"When you look at their underweight group compared to other groups, it's a very compelling observation that there's a clear association between weight and disc degeneration," said Dr. Scott Boden, professor of orthopedic surgery and director of the Emory Orthopaedics & Spine Center in Atlanta.

Exactly what that association is, however, is harder to establish.  The authors believe weight gain may cause physical stress on the disc and, in addition, chronic inflammation brought on by the fat cells can lead to disc degeneration.

Sitting


"Sitting is worse than standing.  Sitting for long periods of time puts pressure on your back, especially if you're not using core muscles to support your back," said Dr. Nick Shamie, associate professor of spine surgery at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica, Calif.

What's even worse is sitting and leaning forward to pick up something from the floor, which places the maximum amount of force on the lower back, he added.  Instead of leaning and reaching, Shamie explained the best way to pick something up is to get on the knees, pick it up and keep the object close to the body.

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke recommends sitting in a chair with good lower back support.  If sitting for a long time, people should rest their feet on a low stool or stack of books.  But if possible, switch sitting positions and get up and walk around a bit throughout the day.

Mattress Type


Whether a soft mattress or a firm mattress is better for the back is up for debate.  There hasn't been a lot of research on it, but a 2003 study found that people who slept on medium-firm mattresses reported less back pain.

"If a bed is either too stiff or too soft, it's likely to cause back problems, but there is a lot of individual variation on that," said Dr. Richard Deyo, professor of family medicine at Oregon Health and Sciences University in Portland.  "You need enough support so the spine is not sagging, but you don't want it so rigid that the spine is forced into an unnatural position."

High Heels

There's nothing to definitively link wearing high heels to the increased likelihood of developing back pain, but experts say it does make sense.

"Having the heel elevated changes the posture and probably forces the lower back into more of an extended position, and that can be painful over time," said Deyo.

But Shamie said wearing high heels is more likely to affect other parts of the body more than the back.

"High heels can put a lot of stress on your feet, but not as much on your lower back," he said.

Purses and Backpacks

"It makes perfect sense that if you have a heavy backpack, there's definitely a potential risk for injuring your lower back and other joints," said Shamie.

In general, he said, maximum weight should be no more than 10 to 15 percent of body weight.

Deyo, however, said the backpack issue has been controversial, and study findings have been conflicting.  Nonetheless, it's probably wise to get an extremely heavy load off the back if possible.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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