Do you have a constant throbbing in your back? Do specific movements bring sudden and sharp pain? Do you wonder what can cause lower back pain in women and why it happens so often?
Back pain is widespread in all adult populations. Nobody is immune from potential back pain, injuries, and spinal conditions. Muscle strains from heavy lifting, kidney stones, and lifestyle risk factors like weight gain and poor posture can cause lower and upper back pain for all of us. However, studies have shown that women experience chronic musculoskeletal issues like back pain more often than men.
Researchers are still working to find out exactly why. Some speculate that women tend to multi-task and care for others at the expense of their own well-being. Other experts blame our culture and a general lack of education regarding proper back and spine care. The reason may be due to physiology; there are back pain issues that affect only women because of anatomical differences like pelvic structure, hormone levels, and pregnancy. The likely answer to why women experience more back pain than men is “all of the above.”
While we don’t have all the answers, we do know that an average of 84% of adults will have back pain in their lifetime, and most of those will be women.
Back Pain in Women: Is It About Aging
The back pain women most commonly experience isn’t necessarily caused by aging but is exacerbated by it. People typically begin to experience back pain and spinal cord issues as young as 30. However, women around the age of 50 or who are post-menopausal have a considerable increase in the chance of back pain.
“As women age, they experience more compression fractures and vertebral changes, such as scoliosis, loss of bone mass, and osteoarthritis, than men. And any one of these conditions puts women at a higher risk of breaking a bone during a fall, which can add to their pain,” reports the Cleveland Clinic.
On the other hand, women have a higher occurrence of back pain at younger ages, too. Damage caused by repetitive motion and injury has nothing to do with age or gender, but athletic injuries are higher for women. Some medical conditions faced more often by women, like sacroiliac joint dysfunction, can occur in women as young as 18.
Symptoms of Back Pain
Back pain in women can be debilitating and chronic. Even mild pain can interfere with your daily routine. When back pain happens, it will be either “acute” or “chronic.”
- Acute back pain usually happens suddenly and lasts a few days to a few months.
- Chronic back pain is persistent and lasts longer than 12 weeks, even after treating the underlying trauma. Chronic back pain can also refer to recurring pain that comes and goes in the same area.
Acute or chronic pain can be localized (felt in a specific area) or widespread (pain diffused over a large area and often radiating to other areas of the body like the legs or hips).
The main symptoms associated with back pain can be as mild as a dull back muscle ache to intense sharp, shooting, stabbing, or throbbing sensations. Pain can be constantly present or start with a movement like bending or twisting.
8 Common Conditions That Cause Back Pain in Women
Lots of things can go wrong with your back. But if you’re older than 30, you should be aware of the common conditions and their symptoms to get the proper care and mitigate long-term effects. Early intervention may prevent many typical female orthopedic disorders.
These are most common reasons for back pain in women.
Osteoporosis is a disease that makes bones brittle and weak. Osteoporosis occurs predominantly in women, especially after menopause, because of the decline in the production of estrogen.
Osteoporosis is often called a “silent” disease because you may lose bone mass for years before any symptoms appear. Back pain from osteoporosis is usually due to hip and pelvic fractures or collapsing vertebrae which causes a slouched posture (known as degenerative spondylolisthesis).
2: Sacroiliac (SI) Joint Dysfunction
The SI joint connects the spine to the pelvis. SI joint pain is common but can be hard to diagnose. Women often have pain in this area because the female pelvis is broader and less curved, and the SI joint has a smaller surface than males. This structural difference adds extra stressors to the ligaments and a higher risk of the SI joint becoming lopsided.
Sacroiliac joint pain can cause sciatica and radiating pain into the buttocks or thighs.
3: Piriformis Syndrome
Piriformis Syndrome occurs when the large piriformis muscle that connects the top of the thigh to the lower spine (through the buttocks) spasms, causing pain and numbness in the buttocks, thighs, and occasionally the hips. The misfiring piriformis can also irritate the sciatic nerve.
Piriformis syndrome is prevalent in women due to hormone fluctuations and pregnancy. Additional symptoms of piriformis syndrome include difficulty sitting for long periods or pain in the morning when you get out of bed.
4: Spinal Osteoarthritis
Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common type of arthritis. Often called “degenerative joint disease” or “wear and tear,” OA occurs in the spine when the facet joints in the vertebrae become damaged, inflamed, or the cartilage begins to deteriorate.
Facet joints aid vertebrae in movements like bending or twisting. If these joints are damaged, the bones of the spine rub together, and spinal pain is inevitable. Aging increases the risk of developing OA. OA is progressive but treatable.
The coccyx is the end of your spine, commonly called the tailbone. Coccydynia is likely more common in women because of the angle and size of the pelvis. Pain in the coccyx is usually the result of trauma, like a fall, or damage due to childbirth. Since the coccyx is a weight-bearing bone, the pain increases when you sit, especially on harder surfaces.
6: Degenerative Spondylolisthesis
Degenerative Spondylolisthesis (DS) is a condition characterized by vertebrae slipping onto another vertebra. This slippage is due to the degeneration of parts of the spine, as seen in conditions like osteoporosis. Low estrogen levels can cause ligaments to loosen and the deterioration of discs in the spinal column, which is why it is common among post-menopausal women. Degenerative spondylolisthesis and spinal osteoarthritis often coexist.
DS symptoms include pain when walking, heaviness in the legs, and radiating leg pain. Women are three times more likely than men to develop degenerative spondylolisthesis.
7: Spinal Stenosis
Spinal stenosis is the narrowing of the spinal cord canal, which creates pressure on the vertebrae, nerves, and discs in the spine. Spinal stenosis results from changes that happen as we age, like bone growth (bone spurs), weakening of the discs (from degenerative disc disease), and soft tissue losing its flexibility.
In addition, spinal stenosis may result from osteoarthritis, which is why it usually happens to post-menopausal women over the age of 50.
8: Pregnancy and Reproductive Conditions
The menstrual cycle, pregnancy, and reproductive processes in a female’s body can also cause back pain. Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS) can cause lower back pain and pelvic pain. Pregnancy is a very common cause of back pain, especially in the first trimester.
Mild and severe back pain in women can also be caused by the following reproductive and gynecological conditions:
- Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD)
- Uterine fibroids
- Ovarian cysts
- Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID)
How Women Can Treat Back Pain at Home
Mild symptoms of back pain in women can be managed at home unless there is significant trauma or injury to an area. Home remedies can include:
Heat or ice therapy: heat relaxes tense muscles and hastens healing by increasing blood flow. Ice packs will slightly numb the area while reducing swelling and inflammation. Use whichever reduces pain, and follow your doctor’s orders.
- Rest and movement: your body needs to rest while it heals. Don’t perform activities that cause pain or increase your risk of further damage. The flip side of rest is movement. Sedentary lifestyles can make your back worse and your muscles weaker. Make sure you stretch and do gentle exercises that don’t exacerbate the existing problem. A physical therapist can provide pain relief and strengthening exercises.
- NSAIDs: Non-steroid anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) like aspirin and ibuprofen sold over the counter can also help alleviate mild back pain.
When to See a Doctor
Ignoring back pain can lead to serious consequences. Pain can be a symptom of kidney malfunction or even cancer. If you’re pregnant, it can be a symptom of early labor or fetal complications.
If you’re experiencing back or spine pain that is associated with the following symptoms, make an appointment with a MOSH specialist right away:
- Pain is sudden, sharp, or unbearable
- You are in an accident or suffered an injury
- You have trouble moving your legs, arm, neck, back, or hips
- Numbness and tingling in one or both legs
- Weakness, loss of strength, or inability to walk
- Swelling or redness in your back
- Severe abdominal pain or discomfort
- Your back pain interferes with your usual routine
- If you have or suspect you may have endometriosis
- You have pain during pregnancy
- No improvement in back pain after a week of home treatment
Healthcare Provider Treatments
The MOSH Spine & Neck Team can guide you through the symptoms and risks associated with common back problems. They can also provide solutions like physical therapy and specialized treatment for some of the most challenging conditions. Other treatment options include special exercises, muscle relaxants, spinal injections, spinal fusions, hormone replacement, certain antidepressants, or surgery.
There is a long list of reasons to explain back pain in addition to the common causes listed here. Some conditions are exclusively for people with gynecological disorders or female reproductive hormones. Back pain in women should not be ignored.
If home remedies don’t alleviate your symptoms, be sure to consult with one of our spine and neck experts at Midwest Orthopedic Specialty Hospital. We can craft a treatment plan customized to your needs and get you pain-free and back to the activities you love. Call us at 414-817-5800, or visit our MOSH Performance Center Clinic in Franklin or MOSH Ortho Walk In Clinic in Brookfield, featuring premier orthopedic care with convenient walk-in appointments and no referral required.