5 Weird Things That Raise Your Risk for Serious Back Pain

A closeup of a man breathing out the cigarettes' smoke

Back pain sucks, and it’s something the vast majority of us will have to deal with at some point in our lives. In fact, about 85 percent of people will have severe back pain for at least 4 to 5 days, says Charles Rosen, M.D., a clinical professor of orthopaedic surgery and spinal surgery at UC Irvine School of Medicine.

Sometimes the aches are temporary, and can be traced to things like increased physical activity, he says. However, there are links between back pain and other pretty common—but seemingly unrelated—factors, suggests recent research presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

Watch out for these sneaky sources of pain so you can take back your back health.

1. CIGARETTES

One more reason to stub out your smokes once and for all: The nasty habit could be beating up your back. About 17 percent of people diagnosed with nicotine dependence report low back pain, says lead study author Scott Shemory, M.D.

One likely reason: Nicotine decreases blood flow throughout your body, and that means a reduction in nutrients heading to the discs in your spine, he says. With less nutrition, cells in the discs shrink and die, which causes pain.

While some shrinking—called disc degeneration—happens naturally with age, smokers tend to experience more shrinking, and therefore, more pain, explains Andrew Hecht, M.D., chief of spine surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital and Health System.

2. DEPRESSION

Almost 1 out of every 5 people with a depression disorder reports back pain, according to the study. But it’s not exactly clear whether depression actually causes the back pain, or if it’s the other way around. For instance, back pain itself may simply bum us out, which may bring on even on more serious depression, Dr. Shemory says.

Another theory, though, is that clinical depression can lower your pain tolerance, says Dr. Rosen. And that may make you more likely to feel bothered by the aches and more likely to report it. Also, if you’re depressed, you may using unhealthy coping strategies like remaining sedentary or smoking, which may also play a role in back pain.

3. BOOZE

Your buzz and back pain may go hand-in-hand. Around 15 percent of people who admitted to alcohol abuse also complained of low back pain, according to the study.

What’s the link? It might not exactly be cause-and-effect, but instead may be due to factors that commonly cluster with throwing back too many, says Dr. Rosen. Typically, those who chug down drink after drink aren’t exactly in fighting shape—if you’re at the bar every night, you’re probably not taking time to work out. Skimping on exercise can cause a loss of muscular support and flexibility of the spine, he says—which can lead to back pain.

Alcoholics may also be more likely to smoke more, experience depression, and carry too many extra pounds—all factors related to back pain, says Dr. Rosen. They may be more likely to injure their backs while intoxicated, too.

4. EXTRA POUNDS

Around 17 percent of obese people in the study noted low back pain. The reason is simple: Extra weight can increase pressure on the spine, says Dr. Rosen.

Those who are out of shape and weigh more may have less muscle—especially psoas muscles near the spine that help support and stabilize your back, he says. Plus, a big belly can pull the spine forward, adding more stress on the back, he says.

5. YOUR DRIVING COMMUTE

You may think your hours sitting are the catalyst of your pain. But the vibrations created from hours of driving—and hitting the inevitable bumpy patches of road—are hard on your back too, says Dr. Rosen.

In fact, the frequency of the vibrations you’re exposed to while driving are similar to those shown in medical research to be damaging to the outer area of spinal discs, he says. So while you’re driving or riding for long durations, you can be damaging the outer region of your discs, too. And that destruction can cause pain. Zipping around in a truck or in a vehicle with rough suspension causes an even greater impact.