5 Surprising Habits That Cause Back Pain

These seemingly harmless habits can leave your back screaming for mercy.

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Back pain is one of the most common complaints of Americans. In fact, some eight out of 10 will experience back pain at some point in their lives, and back pain is the most common type of chronic pain. You may not know why your back hurts if you’re not moving heavy objects all day, but some common habits may be wreaking havoc on your back. Read on for five surprising sources of back pain.

Medically reviewed in May 2018.


You're Glued to Your Phone

2 / 6 You're Glued to Your Phone

If you’re like 91 percent of adults, you have a cellphone. Americans use their phones while they’re walking down the street, on the bus or train, even at family dinners. Using your phone constantly can put you in poor posture, which can lead to back pain, says Ryan Church, DNP, doctor of nursing practice with MountainStar Comprehensive Spine Centers and St. Mark’s Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah. “The best way to hold your phone is a neutral spine with your phone directly in front of your eyes,” he says. Looking down at your phone brings your head forward past your shoulders, which puts stress on the spine.

You Wear the Wrong Shoes

3 / 6 You Wear the Wrong Shoes

Those high heels may be great for your self-image, but they could be doing a number on your back. High heels pitch you forward onto your toes, and to compensate you have to lean backwards, which puts stress on the lower back. Wearing heels occasionally—for a night on the town—is probably ok, says Church, but if you wear them frequently, or you’re overweight (or both), you could be asking for back trouble. “As the number of hours women spend in shoes like that increases, it throws off body mechanics and gait,” says Church.

You Lug a Heavy Purse or Backpack

4 / 6 You Lug a Heavy Purse or Backpack

Look inside your purse. Do you really need hand sanitizer, more makeup than a Sephora store and that book you haven’t gotten around to reading? Heavy purses and backpacks can cause back pain, especially if you’re carrying them inefficiently. “The proper way to carry anything is close to the core,” says Church. “With a backpack, use both straps and make sure they’re well-fitting. Keep the weight low to the waistline.” Ditto for the purse, he says, minus the two straps, of course. Backpacks should be no more than 15 percent of your bodyweight. 

You Smoke

5 / 6 You Smoke

As if you needed another reason to quit smoking. Smoking can exacerbate or even cause back pain, according to some research. Church believes it’s because smoking creates an oxygen deficiency in the body. “Small nerve endings in an oxygen-poor environment become hyperactive and send more pain signals to the brain. Secondly, tissues break down faster due to poor circulation, particularly in the spine,” he says. The solution is simple, but not easy: quit smoking. A 2012 study of more than 5,300 people with back pain found that those who quit smoking during the study had clinically significant less pain.

You Drive with Poor Posture

6 / 6 You Drive with Poor Posture

Sitting in a car puts pressure on your intervertebral discs, and the discs take the brunt of the vibrations created when driving, says Church. A 2015 study conducted by the AAA found that the average person drives 46 minutes per day, which really adds up over the course of a year. If you spend all that time in a car, make sure you’re driving with good posture: knees level with your hips or slightly higher, natural arch to your spine (no slumping) and consider using a pillow to support your lower back. Your head should be pointed straight ahead and mirrors set up so you don’t have to move your head too much to see them, says Church.

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