In younger adults, Dr. Borenstein says the most common cause of back pain is muscle injury rather than DDD.

The most common cause of back pain directly related to discs occurs when a disc ruptures  – referred to as a herniated disc – and the filling leaks and presses upon the nerve that is coming out of the spine. A herniated disc in the neck may cause arm pain or numbness.  In the lower spine a herniated disc may also result in sciatica or leg pain. But this is more commonly a problem for people in their 30s or 40s, rather than older people who are more likely to have disc degeneration.

So what can you do if you’re experiencing back pain? In most cases, treatment is largely the same, regardless of cause, and may include:

  • Losing weight. If you are overweight, losing weight can reduce stress on the spine.
  • Maintaining physical activity. Gentle exercise, such as walking or yoga, can both keep the back flexible and strengthen the muscles that support the spine.
  • Using over-the-counter medications. Most people benefit from acetaminophen, or Tylenol, or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs; however, doctors may prescribe other medications, including corticosteroids, if needed. Always talk to your doctor before taking any medication for pain.
  •  Waiting it out. Muscle pain usually resolves in a week or two, says Dr. Borenstein, and even the pain from herniated discs gets better with time, although it may take six to eight months.

If your pain persists or is accompanied by other symptoms such as inflammation, fever or weakness, Dr. Borenstein recommends seeing a doctor to uncover the source of your pain and prescribe treatment. In some cases, back pain is not due to strain or aging, but to an inflammatory process such as ankylosing spondylitis that requires different treatment. In other cases, problems like herniated discs or spinal stenosis may require surgical intervention.