10 Causes of Low Back Pain

by Tracy Davenport, Ph.D. Health Writer

According to the American College of Physicians, low back pain is one of the most common reasons for a doctor’s visit in the United States. And globally, low back pain causes more years lived with disability than any other condition. The origin of the pain is often unknown, and imaging studies may fail to determine the cause. There are many different reasons your lower back may be bothering you. Read ahead for some of the possible causes.

Construction worker with a back injury.

Muscle and ligament injuries

Strain and injury to the muscles and ligaments supporting the back are the most common causes of low back pain, according to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons. The pain is typically more spread out in the muscles next to the spine and may be associated with spasms in those muscles. Pain may move to the buttocks but rarely any farther down the leg.

Sciatic nerve.


According to American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, if you suddenly start feeling pain in your lower back or hip that radiates to the back of your thigh and down your leg, you may have a protruding (herniated) disc in your spinal column pressing on a nerve in your lumbar spine. This is known as sciatica.

Herniated disc on an anatomical model of a spine.

Herniated disc

A herniated disc, also called bulged, slipped or ruptured disc, is a common cause of severe back pain and sciatica. A disk in the lumbar area becomes herniated when it ruptures or thins out and degenerates to the point that the gel within the disc pushes outward into the spinal canal, according to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons. The herniated disc presses on spinal nerves often producing pain.

Scared woman.


When it comes to back pain, fear is a complex idea with a potential to actually create more back pain. There is evidence that pain-related fear can be seen as a common-sense response to cope when someone is told that their back is vulnerable, degenerating, or damaged. Avoidance of activity and movement can then follow the fear and create back pain. Physical therapists can help navigate the fear and get you moving safely once again.

Degenerative disc.

Disc degeneration

Discs in your back are like shock absorbers between the bones of the spine. As a normal process of aging, the rubbery discs begin to shrink and cause the joints of the vertebrae to rub against one another. Not everyone who has disc degeneration has back pain. However, according to the Arthritis Foundation, for those people in whom the degenerated discs do cause pain that cannot be attributed to another problem, they are considered to have degenerative disc disease.

Man with osteoarthritis-related back pain.


Not long ago, osteoarthritis was believed to be caused by the wear and tear of joints over time. However, according to the Arthritis Foundation, scientists now view it as a disease of the joint. Factors such as genetics, weight, injury, overuse, and other disorders are thought to contribute.

Senior woman experiencing back pain as she gets out of bed.

Spinal stenosis

Spinal stenosis is the narrowing of the spinal canal or narrowing of the openings where spinal nerves leave the spinal column. This condition typically develops as a person ages and the discs start to shrink. At the same time, the bone and ligaments of the spine swell or grow larger due to arthritis and chronic inflammation. Spinal stenosis is usually the result of osteoarthritis, according to the American College of Rheumatology.

Patient pointing out where she feels pain on an anatomical model of a spine.


Spondylolysis is a crack or stress fracture in one of the vertebrae. In some cases, the stress fracture weakens the bone so much that it is unable to maintain its proper position in the spine and the vertebra starts to shift or slip out of place, causing lower back pain.

Signs of osteoporosis on bones.


Osteoporosis is a bone disease that occurs when the body loses too much bone, makes too little bone, or both according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation. While it usually does not cause pain, it can make bones weak and they may break from a fall more easily. If you are 50 or older, you might ask your doctor at your next checkup about the need for a bone density test.

Doctor explaining potential causes of back pain.

Other factors

Other factors can also contribute to back pain, including infections in the bone, cancer, psoriasis, fibromyalgia, ulcers, urinary tract infections, kidney disease, and ovarian cysts.

Tracy Davenport, Ph.D.
Meet Our Writer
Tracy Davenport, Ph.D.

Davenport is the founder of Tracyshealthyliving.com. Using the latest scientific research, she helps people live their healthiest lives via one-on-one coaching, corporate talks, and sharing the more than 1,000 health-related articles she's authored.