Ask Dr. Wahlquist: What Conditions May Cause Back Pain?
Dr. Wahlquist identifies the numerous problems and conditions that may cause back pain.
Why does my back hurt? It is a question that spine specialist Dr. Trevor Wahlquist hears often. “This is a simple question, but answering it requires specialized expertise. Evaluating back pain is complex because there are so many different suspects that can cause back pain. In addition, just because multiple factors are present doesn’t mean they are all contributing to the pain. Teasing out the guilty parties requires the multidisciplinary approach offered by Summit’s spine team.”
The factors that cause back pain aren’t always the usual suspects
People may be surprised to learn how many different conditions can potentially cause back pain. “The spine is a complicated structure,” says Dr. Wahlquist. “Diagnosing back pain is like solving a very involved puzzle. I always begin with a detailed history of the patient. As I ask questions and listen, I’m looking for possible pain suspects. And there are a lot of them to watch out for.”
Factors that can cause back pain
Mechanical problems: “This category of potential back pain describes pain you feel when you move or position your spine in certain ways,” says Dr. Wahlquist. “Pain with movement can be caused by muscle spasms or muscle tension. A ruptured or degenerating disc between the bones of the spine may also cause mechanical pain.”
Injury: “You can injure your spine by twisting or lifting in positions that put too much stress on your back. Improper lifting can create sprains or tears in the ligaments supporting the spine. Additionally, people with osteoporosis are at higher risk of fracturing vertebrae. An accident or fall can also damage the spine’s bony structure or tear supporting tissues.”
Stress: Stress can cause back pain when back muscles respond to stressful conditions by becoming tense.
Medical conditions and diseases of the spine: “Some of the medical conditions known to cause back pain are directly linked to the spine, but others are not,” Dr. Wahlquist notes. Spine conditions that can contribute to back pain include:
- Scoliosis. “The risk of back pain caused by this curvature of the spine becomes greater when patients reach middle age,” says Dr. Wahlquist.
- Spondylolisthesis. This condition describes a bone in the spine that slips out of place.
- Spinal stenosis. “This narrowing of the spinal column can put painful pressure on nerves,” explains Dr. Wahlquist.
- Disc herniations. “Disc herniations or cysts in the spine can press on nerves and cause pain,” notes Dr. Wahlquist.
- Arthritis. This painful degenerative condition can affect joints anywhere in the body, including the spine.
Other medical conditions and diseases that can cause back pain:
- Pregnancy. During pregnancy, weight gain, posture shifts, muscle separation with uterus expansion, and emotional stress can trigger back pain.
- Kidney stones. Kidney stones may be small, but as they begin to move from the kidney through the ureter, they can cause back pain.
- Infections. The bones of the spine and the discs between them are vulnerable to painful infections.
- Endometriosis. This is the buildup of uterine tissue outside of the uterus, at other locations in the body that could contribute to back pain.
- Fibromyalgia. This disease causes widespread muscle pain and fatigue.
- Tumors. Benign or cancerous growths that affect the spine are rare, but also should be considered when patients complain of back pain.
“I think it’s helpful for people to learn about the dynamics that can cause back pain,” concludes Dr. Wahlquist. “The more you know, the better equipped you are to partner with me. When you understand contributing conditions, you are less likely to dismiss information I need to track down the possible suspects. Working together, we can get you back on the road to recovery.”
More resources for you
“Ensuring people are living healthy and active lifestyles is important to me. I strive to work together with patients to find non-operative and operative solutions for their pain, getting them back to the activities and the people that matter most to them.”
Dr. Stulc addresses the safety of orthopedic regenerative therapies.
Ask the Expert: Regenerative Medicine Video Series
Hand specialist Dr. Blake Hildahl explains how symptoms aid diagnosis of carpal tunnel syndrome.