Got back pain? It could be caused by arthritis. Here's how to tell

Back pain impacts up to 80% of people at some point in their lives. But, while it's common, it's not exactly comfortable to live with. Back pain can range from annoying to disabling, making it something most people want to fix ASAP.

Finding the right treatment for your back pain means trying to figure out what's causing your pain in the first place, Dr. Ashira Blazer, a rheumatologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, tells Yahoo Life. Here's what could be behind your back pain, and how to get relief.

Common causes of back pain

The most common causes of back pain are strain and wear and tear over time, Blazer says. In most cases, back pain has to do with the small muscles around the vertebrae — which are the small bones that form the spine — being strained or tense, she says.

"In some cases, [back pain] can also have to do with the discs in between the vertebrae becoming a little bit shorter over time or becoming displaced over time," Blazer says. "That can cause some back pain."

Inactivity can also raise your risk of back pain, especially as you get older, Blazer says. "We do find that, as people become a little bit less active and have that long-term pressure on the back, they can have more and more back pain," she explains.

Back pain can even be caused by arthritis, a chronic illness that causes pain, stiffness and swelling around the joints, Blazer says. While there are different forms of arthritis, osteoarthritis—which is caused by the wear and tear and changes in the joints and connective tissues—is the most common.

Dr. Ashira Blazer says back pain can be caused by arthritis, a chronic illness that causes pain, stiffness and swelling around the joints. (Photo: Yahoo Life.)
Dr. Ashira Blazer says back pain can be caused by arthritis, a chronic illness that causes pain, stiffness and swelling around the joints. (Photo: Yahoo Life.)

Back pain is generally categorized into lower and upper back pain, with Blazer noting that lower back pain is the most common. "We walk on two feet upright as humans and so, over time, we can have more strain and pressure on that lower back," Blazer says. Upper back pain can happen for similar reasons, she says, but it's also often due to injuries.

3 ways to tell typical back pain from arthritis pain

Back pain can be caused by arthritis, and Blazer says there are a few signs your pain may be caused by the health condition:

  • You're stiff in the morning. "Most people who have everyday back pain don't have too much stiffness in the morning," Blazer says. People with typical back pain may feel slightly stiff for 20 to 30 minutes in the morning, but those with pain from arthritis may have pain that lasts more than an hour or two.

  • Your pain is so bad it wakes you up. "Most people can get to bed just fine," Blazer says. But, "if you have back pain that's waking you up at nighttime, that might be suggestive [of arthritis]," she says.

  • You have other symptoms. It's possible to just have arthritis in your back. But, if you have a form of autoimmune arthritis like rheumatoid arthritis or psoriatic arthritis, you may also have a rash, Blazer says. "A lot of times our arthritis syndromes go along with more than just back pain."

Acupuncture is one way to potentially ease back pain. (Photo: Getty)
Acupuncture is one way to potentially ease back pain. (Photo: Getty) (privetik via Getty Images)

3 ways to treat back pain

In general, back pain is treated "holistically and with supportive care," Blazer says. That can include:

  • Moving regularly. "You have to keep moving," Blazer says. That can include walking, stretching, strength training, yoga and tai chi. "Those are very good at preventing the kinds of the common types of back pain that we experience," she says.

  • Taking OTC medications. Over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen or like ibuprofen can help. Blazer just recommends checking in with your doctor if you're regularly planning to treat your back pain with medication. "Anything that's strong enough to have an effect is strong enough to have a side effect," she says.

  • Consider acupuncture. This holistic treatment may help relieve pain, Blazer says.

Blazer says many of these treatments are covered by health insurance, including Medicare, "so if you're interested in a holistic approach for your arthritis, don't be afraid to talk about it because you may have some benefits through your insurance to help that."

How to lower your risk of developing back pain from arthritis

Moving regularly and eating a healthy diet can help lower your risk of developing arthritis, Blazer says. So can maintaining a healthy weight. (This, she explains, means there is less pressure on your supportive joints.)

Another important thing to consider? Have injuries treated properly. "One of the biggest causes for osteoarthritis progression is injury," Blazer says. "We can have injuries or some sort of accident, and that can upset the support tissue in our joints. And often we don't go to physical therapy, we just sort of keep moving."Not taking the time to heal properly after an injury or making sure that your joints are moving well can raise the risk of developing arthritis later in life, she says.

When to see a doctor about back pain

If you're having back pain and it's interfering with your life, it's important to seek care. And, if you suspect that your back pain is due to arthritis, Blazer recommends seeing a healthcare professional sooner rather than later.

"Early diagnosis is extremely helpful for any form of arthritis — that's because it's a treatable problem and because it's a problem that can progress over time," Blazer says. "If you start to address it as early as possible, the likelihood is that you're going to be able to live well with your arthritis."