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10 Lifestyle Risks for Chronic Back Pain

Chronic back pain affects millions of Americans and is the leading form of chronic pain in this country. It’s more than just an inconvenience, as chronic back pain is a leading cause of disability, impacting many Americans’ ability to earn a living.

Certain lifestyle circumstances are risk factors for chronic back pain and, by understanding these risks, men and women can take action to mitigate them and reduce their likelihood of enduring constant back pain.

Office woman with back pain

About eight out of ten Americans will suffer back problems at some point in their lives. For most, this is just a temporary situation, but, for others, a long-term problem will develop. Chronic back pain is defined as acute back pain that lasts more than 12 weeks. It can occur even after treatment of an injury or another cause of pain.

It’s estimated that chronic back pain affects about 26 million people per year. By comparison, about 25.8 million Americans live with diabetes and about 11.9 million are suffering from cancer. Chronic back pain has been identified as a leading cause of disability claims, and back pain is a leading cause of lost work days even among those able to work.

Chronic back pain has a huge impact on quality of life. The constant feeling of discomfort can make you irritable, causing mood swings and frustration. Limitations on your physical abilities or your career resulting from lower back pain can result in depression and low self-esteem. Men and women suffering from low back pain can also face an elevated risk of developing substance abuse problems, especially if they self-medicate with opioids and alcohol to dull the persistent pain they are experiencing.

aching back pain

Unfortunately, chronic back pain is on the rise in the U.S. In 1990, a study of the conditions most likely to contribute to mortality or poor health ranked back pain No. 6. By 2010, chronic back pain was ranked as the No. 3 health issue most likely to contribute to mortality or poor health, outranked only by heart disease and lung disease.

Lifestyle Risk Factors for Chronic Back Pain

Chronic back pain has many causes, and our lifestyle circumstances and choices can play a major role in whether you develop this serious health problem. While some circumstances cannot be changed, there are steps you can take to mitigate their effect on your health.

The human spine is intended to carry the body’s weight and distribute loads that occur during activity and rest. When a person is overweight, the spine must accommodate the excess burden. Over time, this can lead to greater wear and tear on the spine and the development of back issues such as sciatica and herniated discs.

Obesity doesn’t just contribute to chronic back pain, it also contributes to other forms of chronic pain, such as fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, and others. Obesity and back pain can create a terrible cycle, as back pain caused by obesity may cause people to shun physical activity, leading to more weight gain and greater back problems.

If you’re experiencing back pain, one of the best favors you can do for yourself is to take action if you’re overweight. If you’re overweight but don’t suffer from back problems, beginning a weight loss plan can help you forestall back problems in the future.

  • Stress – Stress can also contribute to back pain. Psychological issues can have physiological effects. Emotional distress can cause responses in the body, such as restriction of blood flow to muscles and tissues in the back, resulting in pain. If you believe that stress is contributing to back pain, learning some relaxation techniques such as yoga or breathing exercises can help. Consulting with your doctor can also help you find ways to manage stress and its impact on your body.

stressed out

  • Smoking – On top of all the other health risks smoking poses, such as lung cancer and stroke, tobacco use also makes it more likely that you will suffer from chronic back pain. Smokers have been found to be three times as likely to develop chronic back pain than non-smokers. Researchers have discovered that tobacco use results in changes to the nucleus accumbens and the medial prefrontal cortex—parts of the brain that deal with how we handle pain. Smoking also causes the arteries to harden and decreases blood flow to tissues in the back, worsening degenerative spinal problems.
  • Sitting – Many of us work office jobs, or other occupations where we must spend much of the day seated. Long periods of sitting can contribute to chronic back pain, especially if you have poor posture or are seated in a poorly designed chair. Long periods of sitting puts pressure on the discs supporting your back, increasing your likelihood of developing pain or degenerative conditions.

 Sitting down

While most of us can’t ditch our desk jobs, there are a few things we can do at work to reduce our chances of developing chronic back pain. Getting up to walk around at regular intervals during the day can help. So can practicing good posture and swapping out old, worn-out chairs for ergonomically correct chairs.

  • Pregnancy – Pregnant women often develop back pain as the increased weight of the child they are carrying puts pressure on the spine. Practicing good posture and engaging in doctor-recommended exercises such as swimming or walking can help pregnant women avoid developing chronic back pain. Losing weight after giving birth can also help head off long-term back problems.
  • Inactivity – Lack of exercise is a major risk factor for chronic back pain. Regular exercise can strengthen the muscles of the back, making them stronger and more resistant to degeneration or injury. A regular exercise routine can also help men and women avoid becoming overweight and adding an additional burden to their spines. Not all of us are meant to become body builders, but, by staying reasonably fit, we can reduce our likelihood of developing back problems.
  • Diet – A diet of foods that work to reduce inflammation can help men and women avoid or mitigate chronic back pain. In general, fruits and vegetables are noninflammatory and can even help to reduce inflammation. Some good choices include watermelon, carrots, beets, and green tea. Some foods to avoid include fried foods, white bread, and sugary snacks.
  • Harmful activity – Too much of the wrong kind of activity can also contribute to chronic back pain. Construction workers, distribution center employees, and other workers whose jobs include lots of lifting, pushing, and pulling are at elevated risk of developing back pain. Using proper safety equipment and following safe lifting and work recommendations can help prevent problems with chronic back pain.
  • Age – While we can’t do much about our age, we can be aware of the aging process’s impact on spinal health and take steps to mitigate it, such as getting proper exercise, avoiding activities likely to cause injury, and working to maintain a healthy weight.
  • Backpack overload – Loading our children down with heavy books and school gear can contribute to back problems later in life. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons recommends that backpacks for children should weigh no more than 15 to 20 percent of their body weight.


360 Back and Spine Center helps patients suffering from chronic back pain and other health issues related to the spine and back. Dr. Melanie Kinchen has more than 15 years’ experience in spinal surgery and is a Harvard Medical School-trained M.D. who completed her residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital, one of the nation’s most revered medical institutions.

Dr. Kinchen and her staff are dedicated to helping patients overcome the challenges back pain poses to their quality of life. For a free consultation with a highly qualified spine surgeon in Texas, contact 360 Back and Spine Center today.


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