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5 Surprising Reasons Your Back Is Killing You

Most of us suffer low back pain eventually. Find out why and get relief

Woman holding her lower back in pain


Back pain can affect most of us from time to time. Find out what could be going on.

En español | Four out of 5 people will experience low back pain and, odds are, they'll know what triggered it: They lifted a box improperly, slept "funny" or simply sneezed.

But low back pain — one of our most common causes of disability and doctor visits — is often provoked by other issues.

Check out these five surprising ways your back gets out of whack, and tips for keeping it in line.

1. You're feeling down

The blues and more serious mood disorders such as depression can translate into pain in other parts of your body. Researchers from the University of Sydney found that people who had symptoms of depression had 60 percent greater incidence of back pain compared with those who were not depressed.

Although the link between back pain and depression isn't clear, one theory is that people who are depressed are less likely to exercise and more likely to have disturbed sleep, both of which contribute to back pain.

The fix: See a therapist, who can help you manage your low moods. This, in turn, could help your back pain subside.

2. You have tight hips

A lifetime of sitting steadily decreases hip mobility by thickening the fibrous tissue encasing your joints. This puts extra strain on your lower back, and inflammation from arthritis can make the situation even worse. Plus, if you lean forward when you sit — as most of us do while we're at the computer — you're putting almost double the amount of force on your spine, compared with standing, says Alan Hedge, director of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Research Laboratory at Cornell University.

The fix: Loosen up your hips with a classic frog pose. With your knees on the floor, spread your legs apart as far as you can. Then roll your upper body forward so your elbows and forearms are on the floor.

3. You're heavy in the front

You probably know that being overweight can contribute to back pain, but the location of those extra pounds makes a difference, too, says Kevin Vincent, M.D., of the University of Florida. Extra weight in your gut tilts your pelvis and increases the curve of your spine. "The spine's joints are pushed and under stress," he says. "They compress together."

The fix: Exercise both the large and small muscles in your lower back. Lunges, for example, not only force you to use small muscles in your lower back that provide balance; they also target your glutes — the big muscles in your behind that help control your spine and back. Losing that excess weight is also smart: "If you lose weight, the back pain gets better," Vincent says.

4. You're on your phone — all the time

Having a strong social network is a sign of good health, but if you're on your phone too much, you could be putting your back at risk. That's because bending your neck to read or text can put up to an extra 60 pounds of force on your spine, says Ken Hansraj, chief of spine surgery at New York Spine Surgery & Rehabilitation Medicine in Poughkeepsie. Combining this poor posture with common arthritic buildup or degeneration in your spine's disks can result in back pain.

The fix: Keep your head up and eyes looking down. "Good posture is where you bring your ears above your shoulders and open up your chest by retracting your angel wings — your scapula," Hansraj says. Better still? Use headphones with a built-in microphone so you don't have to bend your neck.

5. You have bad feet

The body's systems and organs are linked by what physiologists call the kinetic chain, which works as you'd expect: A weak link anywhere in that chain can create problems elsewhere.

For instance, if you have plantar fasciitis (pain in the heels or the bottoms of the feet), it can cause a subtle limp that can throw off your gait enough to cause back pain.

The fix: Any pain that affects your gait — arthritis in a knee, a twisted ankle — should be checked out, not only to solve that issue but to prevent collateral damage, too.