Preventing and treating low back pain

Man holding lower back

If you have low back pain, also known as lumbago, you are not alone. Back pain is one of the most common complaints leading to doctor visits or missed work days. It’s so common that even school-aged children experience it.

Back pain can be a dull and constant ache or a sudden, sharp shooting pain. It can develop over time, due to age or an injury, or come on suddenly. Some back pain can be expected, such as if you start working out for the first time in a month — or a decade! This description makes it sound like you can’t escape it, right? But if you know the risk factors, you just might.

Risk factors

Some risk factors are unavoidable, like age. That doesn’t mean you can’t do the best you can to live a healthy, pain-free life. But don’t worry: this article includes information on how to prevent back pain as well.

Here are the risk factors to keep in mind:


Age contributes to a loss of bone strength. As we age, we lose muscle elasticity and tone. We also become more at risk for developing osteoporosis (a bone disease in which we lose bone, make too little, or both).

Anxiety, chronic pain, depression, and stress

These health challenges can affect the body in many ways, including muscle tension, and can influence how closely one focuses on pain and how much they feel its severity. In the case of chronic pain, dealing with it daily can lead to anxiety, depression, and stress. If you suffer from chronic pain, there are ways you can manage it. Help is also available for mental health.


Backpacks overloaded with schoolbooks and supplies can strain the back and cause muscle fatigue, even in young children. This is true for purses as well.

Lack of exercise

Surprisingly, this can be due to abdominal muscles that don’t better support the spine, or weak back muscles. When fitness is infrequent — exercising only on weekends, for instance — back pain is more likely to happen. Regular exercise is best.


Certain forms of arthritis are genetic, like spondylitis, for example. Spondylitis is an inflammatory arthritis affecting the spine and large joints, leading to limited mobility of the spine.

Job-related factors

Heavy lifting, pushing, or pulling, especially if it involves twisting or vibrating the spine, can cause injury. Working at a desk all day also contributes, and is made worse by poor posture or a chair that does not have enough back support.


Smoking restricts blood flow and oxygen to the discs of the spine, causing them to degenerate faster. Want to quit smoking? We can help!


Weight gain, especially if gained quickly (such as during pregnancy), puts a burden on the back. Being overweight in general is also a contributing factor.

Diagnosing back pain

Despite knowing all the risk factors, it can still be difficult to know the true cause of back pain. Your healthcare provider will go over a complete medical history and physical exam with you. Such a visit can usually identify any serious conditions that may be causing the pain. Neurologic tests can help also, as well as imaging tests. An x-ray, for example, can be used to rule out specific causes of pain, such as tumors.

Preventing back pain

To keep your back healthy, follow these recommendations:

  • Be mindful of your sleeping position and use a firm mattress. Sleeping on one’s side with the knees drawn up in a fetal position can help open up the joints in the spine. It also relieves pressure by reducing the curvature of the spine.
  • Exercise regularly to keep muscles strong and flexible. Choose exercises that are low-impact, age-appropriate, and meant to strengthen the lower back and abdominal muscles. If you are looking for suggestions, call your healthcare provider.
  • If you have to lift heavy objects, do so safely. Lift from the knees, pull the stomach muscles in, and keep your head down, in line with your back, which should be straight. Keep objects close to your body and do not twist. Don’t try to lift anything that is too heavy for you.
  • Maintain a healthy weight and eat a nutritious diet. A good diet should include foods rich in calcium (dairy products and green vegetables like kale, collard greens, and broccoli), phosphorous (cow’s milk, as well as beans and lentils), and vitamin D (salmon, sardines, and egg yolks) to promote new bone growth.
  • Move between standing and seating at regular intervals. Taking short walks around the office or your neighborhood can help or using a standing desk. A pillow or rolled-up towel placed behind the small of the back while seated offers lumbar support. Put your feet on a low stool or a stack of books when sitting for a long time.
  • Quit smoking. Not only does smoking cause degeneration in spinal discs, as mentioned earlier, but it also increases the risk of osteoporosis. Coughing due to heavy smoking can also cause back pain.
  • Use furniture at home and work that is designed to support your back. Be sure work surfaces are at a comfortable height.
  • Wear comfortable, low-heeled shoes.

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National Institutes of Health

The information provided is meant for a general audience. Capital Blue Cross and its affiliated companies believe this health education resource provides useful information but does not assume any liability associated with its use.