6 Surprising Causes of Back Pain, According to a Spinal Surgeon

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Sitting on your wallet and certain clothing items are among the unexpected causes of back pain.
Image Credit: Carol Yepes/Moment/GettyImages

A shoddy home-office setup, an old mattress, bad form at the gym and stress are all common back pain causes. But you might not always be able to pinpoint some of the more unusual reasons why your back hurts.


To help, Gbolahan Okubadejo, MD, a New York City-based spinal and orthopedic surgeon, discusses six surprising culprits of back pain that could be to blame for your discomfort.

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1. Dehydration

"When you are dehydrated, the spinal discs lose water and your spine is in distress," Dr. Okubadejo says. "When this happens, the spine takes on the full shock of your movements, which can lead to pain." Ouch.

Fix it:‌ Drink plenty of water and limit drinks with caffeine, which are dehydrating, he says.

2. Your Purse or Wallet

Always keep your wallet tucked in your back pocket? This might be the reason why your back hurts.

"Structural imbalances in the spinal column can occur when you sit on your wallet," Dr. Okubadejo says, because one side of your body is suddenly higher than the other.


This improper positioning places extra stress on your lower spine, which can result in lower back pain and numbness, he explains.

The same goes for carrying a heavy purse or bag on one shoulder. This can also "cause a neck and spinal tilt that can lead to backaches," Dr. Okubadejo says.

Fix it:‌ Luckily, there's a simple solution for back pain relief: "Remove your wallet from your back pocket when you are sitting down, and regularly switch your purse from one shoulder to another," he says.


3. Smoking

Need another reason to quit puffing?

The negative effects of smoking aren't just confined to the lungs. Smoking can cause inflammation and damage to ligaments and muscles in the spinal area, all of which can lead to back pain, Dr. Okubadejo says.



In fact, nearly 37 percent of smokers reported experiencing back pain, compared to 23.5 percent of nonsmokers, according to a September 2016 study in ‌Cureus.

Nicotine can also change the size of the blood vessels and the body's ability to adapt to pain, Dr. Okubadejo adds. Here's why: "When nicotine enters the bloodstream, it decreases healing and inhibits cell regeneration within the [spinal] discs," Dr. Okubadejo explains.


Smoking also reduces blood flow (and, with it, essential nutrients) to the discs, which he says can cause them to prematurely age and further contribute to your achy back.

Fix it:Quit smoking for good.

4. Your Clothing

What you wear could be to blame for your backaches, too. In fact, skinny jeans were among the top five clothing culprits that contributed to back pain, according to 2017 consumer research from the British Chiropractic Association.


Why? "Skinny jeans constrict easy movements in the knees and hips and influence the way we position our body," Dr. Okubadejo says. And poor posture plays a major role in back pain because it forces your spine and back muscles to strain to hold you in unnatural positions.

Your delicates can also be doling out back discomfort. Specifically, strapless bras may not provide enough reinforcement for the back (particularly if you're large-breasted), Dr. Okubadejo says. Your shoulders may be strained without the straps for support, which can cause pressure and back pain.


Fix it:‌ Try to limit the amount of time you spend wearing these clothing items to keep your back healthy, Dr. Okubadejo says.


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5. Your Footwear

Ever notice a backache after a night out in pumps? Back pain causes don't stop with your clothing: Indeed, high heels can hamper your back health, too.

Heels change the way you walk by forcing you to tilt your pelvis and push your buttocks forward, which hyper-arches your spine, Dr. Okubadejo says. "In severe cases, this can cause sciatica for those who spend a great deal of time walking in skyscraper heels," he adds.

And backless shoes — even if they're flats — are no better. If you need to bunch up your toes to keep your shoes from falling off when you walk, this will inhibit your ability to use the front of your foot, Dr. Okubadejo says. As a result, this puts "your hips into overdrive, resulting in muscle imbalance, lower-body fatigue and a sore lower back," he explains.

Fix it:‌ Again, reducing the time you spend wearing uncomfortable shoes is the smartest strategy to eliminate these back pain causes.

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6. Your Phone

Constantly slouching forward to scroll on your smartphone may be why your back hurts, because poor posture can trigger tension in your neck, shoulders and back.

"Constantly hunching your neck over to look down at your phone compresses and tightens the muscles and tendons in the front structure of your neck," Dr. Okubadejo says. "This creates imbalance and results in reduced mobility, shoulder and neck pain, a curvature formation at the upper back and even headaches."

Fix it:‌ To avoid tech neck (and subsequent backaches), hold your phone closer to eye level, and rest your elbows on a tabletop to prevent your arms from growing tired.




Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.