Back pain is inconvenient and, unfortunately, incredibly common ― 4 out of 5 adults will have low back pain at some point in their lives, according to the American Association of Neuromuscular & Electrodiagnostic Medicine.
If you are one of the nearly 65 million Americans who report a recent episode of back pain or one of the 16 million adults with persistent back pain, then you know how miserable it can be.
But it’s often difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of your back pain — was it from spending hours on your laptop or sleeping in a weird position? Did mopping the floor or working in the garden make it flare up? Your back pain could even be a combination of all four, or something else entirely. So, how do you stop it?
From near-constant dull aches to sharp jolts of pain that appear with movement, back pain ranges from uncomfortable to debilitating. And you could be making it worse without realizing it. The way you sit, scroll Instagram, and do other common activities could contribute to the way your back feels.
“Have you ever got to the end of your day and felt achiness or pain in your back, and you are not sure what caused it? This is a common occurrence,” said Kelly Kessler, a physical therapist, wellness coach and founder of Optimal You Health and Wellness, LLC. “In fact, most cases of back pain do not result from a fall or a sudden injury; the majority occur from an unknown onset.”
Below, you’ll find a selection of habits that may be contributing to your back pain.
1. Having bad posture
Bad posture is one of the main culprits of back pain.
“Sitting hunched puts pressure on the lower back and can lead to pain and spasm due to the change in the normal curvature of the spine,” said Dr. Febin Melepura, the medical director at Sports Injury & Pain Management Clinic of NYC, who is double board-certified in anesthesiology and pain management.
Slouching over your computer, for example, can lead to “changes in the normal posture of our spine,” Melepura said. Do this for a long time, and it can lead to back pain “due to the prolonged pressure exerted on the spinal discs,” he added.
Working from home can make sitting in this position even more tempting. Demetris Elia, a mobile chiropractor with PEAKiropractic in Dallas, said that some of his patients “have been working from the couch for the past two years, so they have developed significant lower and upper back pain.”
He called slouching “the worst habit we have in today’s society,” because “it compromises the lumbar spine (low back), which does not allow the rest of the spine to be in a biomechanically advantageous position.” This causes joints to restrict and muscles to tighten “in an attempt to compensate,” leading “pain and inflammation to develop along the spine.”
2. Looking at your phone
Looking down at your phone (or tablet or book) can lead to “upper back and neck pain/discomfort,” according to Elia.
This can make “the spine and muscles of the upper back work overtime to try and prevent the head from going even further in front,” he said, before describing the proper position as one where “the ears sit center to the shoulders.”
3. Sitting in non-supportive chairs
“Sitting for too long, often in chairs with poor support and which are wildly uncomfortable, can definitely be a significant contributor to back pain,” said Dr. Grant D. Shifflett, an orthopedic spine surgeon for DISC Sports & Spine Center in California.
He suggested making the investment in ergonomic office furniture, as well as “sitting with your core neutral, lumbar support, a footrest, having good wrist support for your keyboard and mouse, getting a convertible sitting or standing desk, and keeping the computer screen at eye level.”
4. Not taking brief standing breaks
There’s a reason your Apple Watch reminds you to get up every hour — these mini breaks can help your back.
“Today’s average desk worker uses a laptop and spends hours on a keyboard, which causes cumulative exhaustion in the spinal support muscles,” said Sridhar Yalamanchili, a physical therapist with Atlantic Spine Center in New Jersey.
He suggests taking “mini breaks comprising of simple stretches for the back, neck and chest muscles.”
5. Walking without arch support or arching your foot
The way you walk can impact the way your back feels. “If you are a foot slapping walker, look no further for the cause of your back pain,” said Veera Gupta, a chiropractor at Optimum Health Chiropractic in New Jersey.
“Feet are meant to move in a curvilinear pattern, arching from the heel to the toes and using every one of the intrinsic muscles of the foot to take each and every step,” Gupta explained. This means if you are flat-footed, slap your feet when you walk, or walk without arch support, “the foot collapses and the kinetic chain of energy ends in your back, causing lower back pain.”
6. Not walking enough
“The human spine was designed for movement,” said Dr. Neel Anand, a professor of orthopedic surgery and director of spine trauma at Cedars-Sinai Spine Center in Los Angeles. “Between the time we spend asleep and the addition of eight hours of a workday in a seated position for many people, no wonder our spines are screaming in pain. Many of us are spending most hours in a day not moving around.”
To fix this, Anand suggests working out and walking. “Exercise (yes, this includes the simple act of walking) nourishes the spine and strength for its surrounding muscles,” he said. “If you’re someone who is often sedentary and battles back pain and stiffness, try walking for at least 30 minutes every day.” This is an easy way to build strength to protect your back.
7. Forgetting to stretch
Has your back felt tight and sore after a workout? Stretching can help.
“Stretching every day is an excellent way to prevent back pain and spasms,” Anand said. “It doesn’t need to be yoga, but you should make it a point to stretch your back, legs, arms and neck every day.”
8. Not engaging your core
A strong core is important for optimal back health. Try incorporating more core work ― like forearm planks, dead bugs and bicycles ― in your regular fitness routine.
“Strengthening the core muscles is key to reducing back pain overall,” said Dr. Ronald Barton Tolchin, medical director of Miami Neuroscience Institute’s Spine Center. He explained that this “can help avoid back pain because it takes stress off the disc and facet joints.”
Make sure you are using proper form and body mechanics to “avoid increased stress on the spine,” Tolchin added. “Use the leg muscles when bending forward. For example, performing a squat or lunge to get down to the ground to pick something up.”
“Also, it is important to avoid bending forward with a round back to decrease the load on the spine,” he continued. “Instead, a flat back position or the back arched backward would use more of the hip joint while bending and can be quite helpful for the spine.”
9. Using the wrong pillow
Anand recommends finding the right pillows that support your back while you sleep. This includes a pillow “that keeps your neck parallel to the mattress and that adapts to your specific sleep position.” Cervical contour pillows are “extremely effective,” according to Anand, because they elevate your neck more when sleeping on your side and less when sleeping on your back.
If you have a firmer mattress, use a thicker pillow “because there is less cushion for your shoulder to sink into and thus there is a greater space between your mattress and head,” he said. If it’s a memory foam mattress, you’ll need a thinner pillow “to compensate for your shoulder sinking into the bed,” he added.
10. Being stressed
Did you know that stress can cause back pain, too? “Stress plays an enormous role in the mind-body connection that governs how we feel,” said Shifflett, who explained that people can “carry their stress” in their lower back or neck.
Danny Lehnert, a physical therapist and board-certified orthopedic specialist in Virginia, agreed, noting that “80% of people will have low back pain at some point in their lives, and it is completely normal to have aches and pains.”
If you’re concerned about your back pain, make an appointment to see your doctor. Powering through the pain could cause long-term injuries, and it’s better to get it checked out sooner.