What Your Back Pain is Trying to Tell You

Sit up straight.

Right now.

Roll your shoulders back. Tuck in your chin and draw your head back.

Now relax.

There, now isn’t that better?

See, if you’re like 50% of working Americans complain of constant, nagging back pain. 

That’s half of all working Americans that acknowledge having back pain — the TRUE number of silent sufferers would be impossible to quantify. 

And in most of these cases, back pain is not caused by a serious medical condition. That means that most of the time, there is a behavioral or lifestyle reason that your back hurts.

Listening to your body can be difficult. It’s speaking in another language, after all. Unless you learn to interpret your body’s signals, you’re likely to continue experiencing back pain which can range from irritating to limiting to absolutely debilitating. 

And here’s the most frustrating part… 

Sometimes your back pain doesn’t even originate from the source of the pain! This “referred pain” you feel is likely caused by an entirely different part of your body.

But the good news is…

There are lots of things you can adjust, adapt, implement, and alter to help ease your back and return your body to the flexible and fully functioning machine it ought to be.

What’s important is identifying the kind of back pain you’re having: location, quality, and consistency. 

And we’ll go from there.

BACK PAIN TYPE 1: “Wear and Tear” Pain

Also called “mechanical pain” or “axial pain,” this is a constant throbbing in the lower back region of your back. 

This is the most common type of back pain — when I told you to sit up straight and tuck in your chin, you might have gotten some relief from this kind of pain!

Sufferers of this pain will describe it as sharp or dull. Unlike some of the other types of back pain listed below, this type DOES NOT travel down into the buttock, legs, or other parts of the body because it is not caused by nerve damage or impingement.

The most common cause of this kind of pain is muscle strain, but it can also come as a result of joint issues or tears in ligaments or spinal discs.

More often than not, lifting heavy objects, sitting for prolonged periods of time, or playing sports will cause this type of pain to flare up. 


In all likelihood, you need to take a rest from whatever consistent activity you’ve been doing the most. If you’ve been sitting for too long today, stand up and walk around. If you’ve been lifting heavy objects all the time, take a break and make sure you include frequent breaks in the way that you perform that function.

Other than that, try stretching or applying ice/heat to the affected areas.

BACK PAIN TYPE 2: Referred pain

Referred pain is the pain that moves around and is sometimes difficult to qualify. 

Mostly, you should be able to feel this kind of pain in the lower back, but unlike axial pain, it reverberates through the groin, buttock, and upper thighs. 

It’s less common than the other two types of back pain, but can be characterized by its tendency to roam. Referred pain is the same kind of pain people feel when they’re having a heart attack — the pain in the left arm. 

What happens is this: the network of sensory nerves that connect in your body becomes injured in some way and it causes pain in the low back, pelvis, and thigh. 


Similarly to axial pain, referred pain won’t normally require surgery. Simply rest, stretch, apply ice packs or hot pads, and take appropriate pain medication.

Take breaks if your lifestyle includes lifting heavy things, or conversely, stand and walk around if you’ve been sitting a lot.

BACK PAIN TYPE 3: Radicular Pain

This is the doozy — the one that feels like a searing, electrified pain. It follows the spinal column down towards the exit of the spinal canal. 

If you’re experiencing radicular pain, it’s because a spinal nerve root is inflamed or under pressure. Now, your nerve roots are spinal level nerves that grow out of the bone of the spine on the right and left side of the spinal column.

These nerves can reach your arms, hands, and fingers — that’s why neck issues and radiate through the arms, and low back issues can cause pain in the legs and feet.

Experiencing simultaneous pain in corresponding regions should be a tip-off that you’re experiencing radicular pain. 

When the traversing nerve root is affected you’ll experience pain in your lumbar region. If it’s the exiting nerve root, you’ll feel it in your neck. 


Anti-inflammatory drugs are normally recommended for traversing nerve pain, as well as physical therapy and stretching. Avoid bending the spine excessively, jumping, or high intensity work-outs.

If those tips, and maintaining proper posture, don’t assist you, consider seeing a chiropractor!

With exiting nerve root pain, the first step is to mitigate the inflammation. Anti-inflammatory drugs, ice packs, stretching, proper posture, soft tissue massages, and even getting an ultrasound are all ways to reduce the pain from this musculoskeletal complaint.

Remember — if your body is talking to you, it’s your job to listen.

But before you do anything else…

Try sitting up straight. Roll your shoulders back. Tuck in your chin. And breathe deeply.

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Dr. Pedram Shojai

NY Times Best Selling author and film maker. Taoist Abbot and Qigong master. Husband and dad. I’m here to help you find your way and be healthy and happy. I don’t want to be your guru…just someone who’ll help point the way. If you’re looking for a real person who’s done the work, I’m your guy. I can light the path and walk along it with you but can’t walk for you.