What Triggers Acute Lower Back Pain?

It may seem like the low back pain came out of nowhere, but that sudden twinge in your lower back really does have a cause. In some cases, there’s an obvious trigger, like picking up your three-year-old from an awkward position. Other times, it’s a mystery.

Although it won’t make it hurt less, it’s important to know the cause of your lower back pain. Why? Because knowing what triggers your back pain is the first step toward preventing it from happening again. If you’ve ever had a muscle spasm stop you in your tracks, you probably don’t want another one anytime soon.

moving a box of books triggers man's lower back painSimple activities like moving a box of books is often enough to cause lower back pain. Photo Source: 123RF.com.

What is Acute Back Pain?

Acute low back pain usually comes on suddenly, feels terrible and lasts a short time. It often resolves on its own with self-care and a little time.

When back pain lingers for more than three months, doctors consider it chronic. Chronic back pain may be more complex and require doctor-directed treatments, such as physical therapy.

Why is Lower Back Pain Common?

About 80 percent of adults1 experience low back pain at some point in their lifetimes. It’s the number one cause of job disability globally and a leading contributor to missed work.

Lower back pain occurs more often than mid- or upper back pain because of its location. The lower back supports most of your upper body weight. At the same time, the low back (lumbar spine) absorbs and distributes forces and stress during movement (eg, walking, standing) and at rest (eg, sitting, sleeping). Weak spinal and abdominal muscles further increase injury risk. These factors combined make your lower back especially vulnerable to conditions that cause acute pain.

Common Lower Back Pain Triggers

Back pain generally occurs when lumbar spine muscles, tendons, ligaments and/or other connective tissue get pulled, strained or sprained. Small tears in the disc can also produce pain. Any number of activities and nonactivities can cause that damage.

A 2015 study published in Arthritis Care & Research recruited 999 people from 300 primary care clinics in Sydney, Australia, to examine their lower back pain triggers. The most common physical triggers included the following:2

  • Performing manual tasks with awkward posture (27.4%). This could include lifting a box without bending your knees or with your back stooped.
  • Heavy lifting (17.9%). Lifting something too heavy can cause a sprain or strain.
  • Moderate or vigorous physical activity (22.5%). An intense strength training session or long bike ride without proper conditioning can trigger back pain.
  • Handling people or animals (8.6%). Picking up a wriggling child or dog can cause a tweak.

Other physical triggers include:

  • Overstretching.
  • Twisting.
  • Trauma such as a fall, a car accident or contact sports.

Lower Back Pain Triggers You May Not Think About

The Arthritis Care & Research study made a few surprising discoveries. Distraction increased the odds of low back pain by a factor of 25.2 When you’re not paying attention, you’re more likely to lift and carry something too far away from your body or distribute your body weight unevenly.

Feeling fatigued and tired was associated with lower back pain in 11.8% of the participants.2 Adequate sleep is essential to restore our bodies to peak function. Without it, we may become more susceptible to injury.

A study in BMJ Open evaluated more than 4,000 participants, both with and without pain. Researchers found that the people who reported “non-restorative” sleep were almost twice as likely to experience pain.3

How Can I Treat Acute Lower Back Pain?

In most cases, the cause of acute lower back pain is not serious and usually resolves within a few days to four weeks. In the meantime, these four conservative treatments may help you feel better and may even speed healing.

1. Keep moving. As much as pain allows, keep doing your regular activities and exercise. Activity encourages blood flow, which moves vital oxygen and nutrients to through your body. This helps reduce muscle tension and inflammation.

2. Use heat or ice. Neither hot nor cold packs will “cure” a strain or sprain, but they do help reduce pain. Heat, especially moist heat, helps loosen tight muscles. Make a warm compress by soaking a towel in hot water. Wring out the excess, fold it to the right size and wrap it around your lower back for up to 20 minutes at a time.

3. Medication. Both acetaminophen (Tylenol) and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) relieve pain. Use them as directed by your doctor. Prolonged use of NSAIDs (Aleve, Advil) can be associated with stomach upset, kidney damage and gastrointestinal ulcers and bleeding, among other conditions.

4. Therapy. Physical and manual therapies such as ultrasound, massage, and chiropractic care may provide temporary relief from short-term back pain. If pain is severe and interferes with your daily activities, a physical therapist may offer suggestions for exercises and stretches to improve posture, increase mobility and correct muscle imbalances.

Acute lower back pain can stop you cold with its intensity. By understanding your triggers, you can take steps to maintain a healthy spine and avoid unpleasant surprises.

Updated on: 10/02/19
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