For the media

What to do when you throw out your back

By The Health News Team | July 27, 2023
Construction worker experiencing back pain

Throwing out your back can be surprising and painful. But “thrown-out back” is not a true diagnosis. It’s just one way people express sudden — and sometimes debilitating — sharp or shooting back pain.

According to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), an arm of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), back pain is among the most common reasons people see their doctor. While it often increases slowly over time, back pain can also come on suddenly.

“There are a variety of reasons a person might experience severe back pain,” says Dr. Muhammad Azam, a family medicine doctor affiliated with Sharp Community Medical Group. “But acute, or sudden, pain often leads patients to seek care because it can be so uncomfortable that it affects their ability to perform daily activities.”

Causes of back pain

According to some estimates, 8 out of 10 people in the U.S. will experience back pain at least once in their lifetime. And back pain does not discriminate — people of all genders and ages experience it, though individuals ages 45 to 64 are at greatest risk.

There are a variety of factors that can increase a person’s risk for back pain. The NIH reports the following are among the top causes:

  • Age: Back pain is commonly first experienced before a person reaches age 30, and instances of pain can increase with age.

  • Fitness level: People who don’t stretch or exercise regularly are more likely to experience back pain.

  • Weight gain: Being overweight or obese can stress the back, causing pain.

  • Genetics: Some causes of back pain, such as arthritis and lumbar disc disease, have a genetic component.

  • Job-related factors: Heavy lifting, pushing, pulling, twisting, vibrating, and sitting or standing for long periods of time can contribute to back pain.

  • Mental health: Anxiety, stress and depression can increase muscle tension, leading to pain.

  • Smoking: The effects of smoking can lead to spinal disc degeneration and pain.

  • Backpack or bag overload: Heavy backpacks or bags can strain the back.

How to treat sudden back pain

There are several ways to relieve back pain so that you can get back to your daily activities. One thing you shouldn’t do, however, is lay flat on your back for long periods of time.

“First, lay flat on your stomach on a relatively hard surface until the pain decreases a bit,” Dr. Azam says. “Then, try to slowly increase your movement, avoiding activities that cause pain.”

The NIH recommends the following at-home treatment options:

  • Take over-the-counter pain relievers and anti-inflammatory medications, or when indicated, apply them directly to the skin.

  • Apply cold packs to help relieve pain and reduce inflammation for the first day. Then, apply hot packs to increase blood flow to promote healing.

  • Gradually increase physical activity, including exercises to strengthen and stretch your back. Stop if you feel pain.

  • Work with a physical therapist to strengthen the muscles that support the back and to improve mobility.

  • Consider seeking acupuncture, acupressure and massage for pain relief.

Talk with your doctor about other treatments, including prescription pain relievers, muscle relaxants or anti-inflammatory injections. Lifestyle changes that can help reduce your risk for future back pain include exercising regularly, maintaining your weight, improving sleep, and reducing stress. Your doctor or physical therapist can help you determine which exercises are best to safely strengthen your back.

“While most back pain can be treated at home, imaging — or X-rays — may be necessary to determine the cause of the pain,” Dr. Azam says. “It’s important to seek care if you have numbness or tingling; back pain after a fall or other injury; pain that doesn’t resolve with basic treatment; and pain combined with difficulty urinating, pain or numbness in the legs, fever, or unintended weight loss. In cases where pain is chronic or significant, surgical treatments may be suggested.”

Learn more about orthopedics; get the latest health and wellness news, trends and patient stories from Sharp Health News; and subscribe to our weekly newsletter by clicking the "Sign up" link below.

You might also like:

Get the best of Sharp Health News in your inbox

Our weekly email brings you the latest health tips, recipes and stories.