UNC Health Care
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5 Daily Habits That Are Causing You Back Pain

How’s your back feeling? If it hurts, you’re not alone—nearly half of all working Americans experience back pain each year.

And though some opt for medication or surgery to get rid of back pain, that’s not always the right mode of treatment—and some drugs might cause you more trouble.

“For lower back pain especially, narcotic pain medications are almost never appropriate as the first line of treatment,” says Moe R. Lim, MD, professor of orthopedics at the UNC School of Medicine. “Over time, people who take narcotics actually develop more severe and chronic pain.”

So, what is the best treatment for back pain? Besides physical therapy, Dr. Lim says changing small daily habits can help dull or completely get rid of these aches and pains. Here are habits to avoid:

1. Sitting for prolonged periods of time.

The disks in the lower back are under the most pressure when you’re sitting. “They have very few cells and very little blood supply, so they get nutrition and release waste from fluid pumping through the disks,” Dr. Lim says. “The disks are like a pump, and a pump has to go back and forth. When you’re sitting in one position, your disks are in a squeezed position, and they don’t get a chance to ‘breathe.’”

The result: Sitting for a long period of time can build up tension and stress in your back that creates aches and pains.

2. Smoking

We all know smoking is horrible for your heart and lung health, as well as your cancer risk, but did you know it could be causing your backaches, too?

“Many people don’t know that smoking can cause back pain, nor that it can cause chronic pain overall,” Dr. Lim says. “But smoking is a triple whammy: It takes away blood supply and starves the disk cells, the nicotine is toxic to the disks in your back, and smoking encourages other changes in the body that contribute to overall chronic pain.”

3. Wearing the Wrong Shoes

High heels can put added pressure on your feet—and your spine. Depending on your feet, your shoes might not be offering you enough support to keep your back in a comfortable position throughout the day. Shoes with a lower heel—less than 1 inch—are the best for your back.

4. Not Getting Enough Sleep

Sleep is great for a number of reasons, one of them being that it gives your body a time to reset for the next day. “When you’re sleeping and lying down, it gives the disks in your back an opportunity to rest and to reabsorb all the fluid that gets squeezed out throughout the day,” Dr. Lim says. “Beyond just the biomechanics of the back, there’s also a huge mind-body connection. For example, people who are under a lot of stress have more back pain.” So, when you don’t get enough sleep, you’re not giving your back time to release tension that can be causing both physical and mental strain.

5. Bad Posture

Standing too straight, looking down at your phone or computer screen, or hunching over at your desk can contribute to back pain. Depending on how you stand, sit and sleep, over time you can actually change the shape and curvature of your spine.

When you’re standing, you should keep your knees slightly bent while bearing your weight on the balls of your feet. When you’re sitting, try to keep your feet on the floor or a footrest and adjust your forearms so that they are parallel with the ground. If you sleep on your back, keep a pillow underneath your knees; and if you sleep on your side, place a pillow between your legs for the most support.

If changing your habits doesn’t get rid of your back pain, talk to your doctor to see if physical therapy is the right treatment for you.  


Talk to your doctor about back pain. If you don’t have a doctor, find one near you.