Most adults will experience lower back pain at some time in their lives. Certain factors can increase a person’s risk of developing lower back pain. These include aging, having overweight, and having a job that involves heavy lifting.
Several medical conditions can cause lower back pain. Injury and arthritis are the most common causes. Certain types of cancer may also cause lower back pain, though these are rare.
This article will provide information on lower back pain as a symptom of cancer. We will also outline the more common causes of lower back pain, and offer guidance on when to see a doctor.
Cancer is rarely a cause of lower back pain. Nonetheless, the following types of cancer may cause this symptom:
Spinal cancer refers to an abnormal growth of cells in the spinal cord or other tissues that make up the spine. If the tumor is in the lower spine, it may cause pain in the lower back.
Some other potential symptoms of spinal cancer include:
- muscle weakness
- difficulty walking
Spinal cancer is rare. Fewer than 1% of adults will experience this type of cancer during their lifetime. Lower back pain is, therefore, unlikely to be a sign of spinal cancer.
A tumor on the back of a lung could cause pain to spread to the lower back.
Lung cancer is more common than spinal cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, around 6.3% of people will receive a diagnosis of lung cancer in their lifetime. However, this type of cancer is still relatively uncommon.
People who have lung cancer are unlikely to experience lower back pain as a symptom. The more common symptoms of lung cancer include:
- a cough that persists beyond 2 or 3 weeks
- recurrent chest infections
- persistent breathlessness
- pain when breathing or coughing
- coughing up blood
Prostate cancer can cause back pain, but it is not a typical symptom.
However, according to the American Cancer Society, advanced prostate cancer does sometimes spread to the bones.
According to the advocacy group ZERO, 60% of people with advanced prostate cancer will experience pain in the spine, ribs, and hips due to bone metastasis.
The term metastatic cancer describes any cancer that has spread, or metastasized, from another part of the body. In some cases, cancer may metastasize to the spine.
The symptoms of metastatic cancer will vary depending on the size and location of the metastatic tumors. Tumors that affect the bones in the base of the spine may cause pain in the lower back. They may also cause the bones in this area to become weak or brittle.
In most cases of lower back pain, the cause is something other than cancer. Some possible causes of lower back pain include:
The human back contains various muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Tendons and ligaments are bands of fibrous connective tissue. Tendons connect muscle to bone, whereas ligaments connect bone to bone.
Strains and sprains are the most common cause of sudden, or acute, back pain. These injuries occur when muscles, tendons, or ligaments become overstretched or torn.
Certain activities can increase the risk of a strain or sprain in the lower back. These include:
- standing for long periods
- lifting heavy objects
- practicing certain sports
Arthritis is the medical term for inflammation of the joints. There are several types of arthritis, and most can affect the facet joints within the spine. These joints are located at the ends of each vertebrae of the spine.
Spinal arthritis (SA) can affect any part of the spine. However, it is most common in the neck region and the lower back region. People who have SA in the lower back may experience pain in that area.
Other potential symptoms of SA include:
- difficulty straightening the back or turning the neck
- a grinding sensation when moving the spine
- swelling and tenderness over the affected vertebrae
- pain, swelling, and stiffness in other parts of the body
- pain or numbness in the arms or legs
- weakness and fatigue
Elastic disks called intervertebral disks (IDs) separate the vertebrae of the spine. The IDs hold the spine together while allowing for movement and flexibility. They also help to cushion the individual vertebrae of the spine.
Sometimes, the intervertebral disks can move out of alignment. Doctors refer to this as a slipped or herniated disk.
A herniated disk that occurs in the lower portion of the spine can cause lower back pain. Other potential symptoms of a herniated disk include:
- pain in the buttocks, hips, or legs
- numbness or tingling in the legs or feet
- difficulty bending or straightening the back
- muscle weakness
Intervertebral disk degeneration
As a person ages, the intervertebral disks between each of their vertebrae can degenerate. Doctors refer to this process as intervertebral disk degeneration (IDD).
When the intervertebral disks degenerate, they are less able to cushion the vertebrae. This can lead to pain and a loss of movement and flexibility in the affected parts of the spine.
According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), IDD is one of the most common mechanical causes of lower back pain. Some other potential signs and symptoms of IDD include:
- back pain that worsens when sitting, bending, or twisting
- weakness and numbness in the back and legs
The sciatic nerve is the
Sciatica is the medical term for irritation of the sciatic nerve. The condition can cause pain anywhere along the sciatic nerve, including the lower back.
People who experience lower back pain without any other symptoms are unlikely to have sciatica. Most people with this condition will experience more intense pain in the buttocks, legs, or feet.
The spinal cord is a tubular structure made up of nerves. Nerves branch off the spinal cord at various points, passing between the vertebrae and extending into other parts of the body.
Radiculopathy refers to a narrowing of the spaces where the nerves travel into or out of the spine. This narrowing pinches the nerve roots, causing them to become inflamed.
Radiculopathy can cause a sharp pain in the back, arms, or legs. Other potential symptoms that could affect these areas of the body include:
- numbness, tingling, or other unusual sensations
- loss of reflexes
Radiculopathy most commonly occurs as a result of herniated disks or osteoarthritis of the spine. Some less common causes include:
- thickening of the ligaments within the spine
- spinal infections
- spinal tumors
Spinal stenosis is the medical term for narrowing of the spinal canal. The spinal canal is the part of the spine that contains the nerves and spinal cord.
Spinal stenosis puts pressure on the nerves and spinal cord, triggering pain in the back and lower body. SS that occurs in the lower spine will trigger pain in the lower back.
Spinal stenosis commonly occurs as a result of osteoarthritis. Other potential causes include:
- excess fluoride or calcium in the body
- a neck or back injury
- scoliosis, which causes an abnormal curvature of the spine
- spinal tumor
Certain conditions cause an abnormal curve in the spine. Some of these conditions are present at birth, while others may develop due to aging, poor posture, or a lack of exercise. Examples include:
Mild cases of lower back pain may go away on their own. However, people should see a doctor if their lower back pain persists or worsens.
People should seek immediate medical attention if their lower back pain is severe, or occurred as a result of an injury.
To diagnose the cause of the lower back pain, a doctor will ask about a person’s symptoms and medical history. They may also order imaging tests to check for abnormalities of the bones, joints, and other structures within the spine.
Lower back pain is common and has many possible causes. The most common causes are injury and arthritis. Lower back pain rarely occurs as a result of cancer.
A person should see their doctor if their back pain is severe or persistent. The doctor will work to diagnose the cause and provide appropriate treatments.