Sharp Lower Back Pain: 13 Possible Causes

Written by Leon Mao
Physiotherapist, University of Melbourne
Medically reviewed by Dr Gina Arena
Research Fellow, University of Western Australia
Reviewed on June 30, 2022

Woman sitting at a computer with sharp lower back pain

Sharp pain in the lower back can be caused by muscle strains, injury to the spine or nerve irritation. In addition, medical conditions in the kidneys and other organs can cause referred pain to the low back.

In 2018, over 4 million Australians suffered from back problems.[1] Sharp lower back pain is a common complaint for many people.[2] It can affect your daily activities and can be worrisome if it happens suddenly without a known cause.

What are the symptoms of lower back pain?

Sharp pain in the lower back comes with other symptoms depending on your condition. For example, radiating pain in the legs or buttocks can be a sign of nerve irritation. Muscle strain in the lower back can present as stiffness and muscle spasms.

What causes sharp pain in the lower back?

Lower back pain is usually felt after performing strenuous tasks like lifting heavy equipment or sudden twisting movement. Your lower back consists of different muscles, tendons, the spine, the pelvis and other soft tissues. Any injury to these structures can cause low back pain.

What are the conditions that may cause lower back pain?

1. Muscle strain

Muscle strains are one of the leading causes of low back pain. Overstretching or sudden twisting movements can tear a muscle or tendon. In addition, sports or sudden lifting motion with poor body mechanics can strain your back muscles.

2. Herniated disc

A herniated disc is an injury that occurs in the lower back region. The spinal discs act as shock absorbers in the spine. However, these discs can rupture and irritate the surrounding nerves, causing sharp pain.[3]

3. Sciatica

The sciatic nerve runs from your lower back to the back of your foot. It is the largest nerve in the body, and it is also a commonly affected nerve when we injure our back.

An injury to the sciatic nerve can cause sharp radiating pain from the lower back extending to the back of the leg.[4] A herniated disc, narrowing of the spine or bone spurs can put pressure on spinal nerves resulting in sciatica.

4. Fracture

A compression fracture of the lumbar spine occurs when a vertebra breaks and collapses. This prevents the spine from supporting the weight of your body and results in sudden and sharp pain during movements. Osteoporosis and direct trauma to the spine can cause a fracture.

5. Arthritis

Osteoarthritis is a wear and tear condition that also affects the spine. The spinal cartilages between the vertebrae get thinner and wear down as we age. This causes the bone to bone contact in the spine resulting in pain and discomfort.

6. Kidney problems

Medical problems in the kidney, such as kidney stones or infection, may cause low back pain. Unfortunately, kidney conditions are often mistaken as back injuries. It is best to consult a medical professional if you have unresolved back pain for more than a week.

7. Infection

Tuberculosis (TB) and other spinal infections can cause sharp low back pain. Although rare, you can also develop an abscess on the spinal cord, which may compress and irritate surrounding nerves.

8. Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm

An abdominal aortic aneurysm is a life-threatening condition. It happens when the abdominal aorta gets blocked (atherosclerosis) due to the build-up of fats and other substances on the wall of the arteries. This may lead to pain in the areas the artery serves.

9. Endometriosis

Endometriosis is a painful disorder in which uterine tissue grows outside the uterus. Women with this condition may experience severe pelvic, abdominal, and lower back pain.

10. Ovarian Cyst

Large ovarian cysts can cause pain in the pelvis and extend to the lower back. Ovarian cysts usually do not cause symptoms, but large ovarian cysts need to be monitored and treated to prevent internal bleeding.

11. Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID)

Pelvic inflammatory disease affects the female reproductive organ and is a severe medical condition. Sexually transmitted infections such as chlamydia and gonorrhea are the usual cause of PID.

Consult your doctor immediately if you are experiencing vaginal discharge, pain in the lower abdomen and fever.

12. Pregnancy

The women's body undergoes a lot of changes during pregnancy. The pelvis expands, and there is an increase in the lumbar lordotic curve to accommodate the growing baby inside the womb. These changes may cause sharp, stabbing pain in the pelvis and lower back during the pregnancy.

13. Prostate problems

Prostate conditions such as inflammation and cancer can cause lower back pain and urinary problems. Therefore, it is best to consult a medical doctor when experiencing a sudden increased urge to urinate or painful ejaculation.

How are conditions with sharp low back pain diagnosed?

Because of the complexity of low back pain, physiotherapists and medical doctors do extensive examinations to determine the cause of your back pain.

Your physiotherapist will conduct a comprehensive physical exam to identify structures in your back that may be affected and determine the root cause of your symptoms.

Further imaging studies such as X-ray, MRI, or CT scan may also be required to assess the integrity of your spine and other soft tissues surrounding it.

If you show signs of infection, such as a fever, a blood exam may be needed to confirm your diagnosis.

How is low back pain treated?

Most musculoskeletal causes of low back pain can be treated conservatively and go away with rest. Conservative treatment may include:

  • Relaxation techniques

  • Gentle massage

  • Therapeutic exercises

  • Stretching

  • Hot compress

  • Over the counter pain relievers.

The best way to treat back pain and prevent it from occurring is to strengthen your back muscles to keep your spine healthy and stable.

However, severe spinal conditions such as compression fractures and spinal stenosis may require surgery to resolve the pain and other symptoms.

How to prevent low back pain?

Here are some of the tips to prevent low back pain:

  • Exercise - Exercise allows you to build stronger back muscles that support the spine.

  • Stretching - Stretching the tight muscles of the lower back, buttocks, and legs can help prevent stiffness and pain in the lower back muscle.

  • Observe proper posture - It is best to practice good posture and body mechanics to reduce the impact of our activities on our back.

  • Avoid sitting for an extended period - When working in front of a computer, rest and take a walk every hour or two.

  • Maintain a healthy weight - This allows you to reduce the load on your spine and prevent unnecessary stress on your spinal discs.

Written by Leon Mao
Physiotherapist, University of Melbourne
Published on June 30, 2022
Medically reviewed by Dr Gina Arena
Research Fellow, University of Western Australia
Reviewed on June 30, 2022
Medical reviewers
Last medically reviewed on June 30, 2022 has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references. You can learn more about how we ensure our content is accurate and current by reading our editorial policy.
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