Lower Back Pain When Waking Up: What You Need To Know

Lower back pain when waking up isn't unusual. It's the most common form of musculoskeletal pain¹ adults experience. 84% of individuals² will experience it in their lifetime and, in 23% of them², it will be chronic.

In many cases, mild back pain and stiffness in the morning arise in response to strenuous activity the day before and sleeping in the same position. However, if this is a recurring pattern and beginning to impact your day, further investigations are necessary. If you ask yourself, "why is my lower back pain worse in the morning?", below are several common explanations.

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What could be causing lower back pain in the morning?

There are many different reasons why you may be experiencing lower back pain when you get up in the morning. However, the most common causes are environmental factors or physical issues.

Environmental causes

Morning back pain, for many people, isn't a sign of a larger spinal problem but rather due to one or more common environmental causes, including:

Bad mattress

Sleeping on an old, worn-out cratered mattress can aggravate your back. You'll experience better spinal support by sleeping on a firm or medium-firm bed.

One 2009 study³ shows that simply changing out your old mattress after 9.5 years can help to:

  • Reduce back discomfort

  • Improve the quality of sleep

  • Reduce stress symptoms

Poor sleep posture

When you sleep in an unsupportive position, it increases spinal pressure, leading to back pain. One common position that causes this is sleeping prone or lying on your stomach.

However, everyone will have their own preferred sleep position. Experimenting with varying sleep postures can reduce strain on your hips, neck, and lower back.

But, this doesn't mean you have to alter your normal sleeping position completely. Instead, you can try supporting your body better by placing a couple of pillows at strategic points while you sleep in your most comfortable position.

For example:

  • If you sleep on your back, try placing a pillow under your knees. This helps better align your spine to reduce pain.

  • If you sleep on your side, place a pillow between your legs, which can better align your spine and hips.

  • If you sleep on your stomach, place a pillow under your lower abdomen, which helps reduce excessive lower back curvature.

If using pillows doesn't improve your symptoms, you may want to start investigating the possible causes of your morning back pain.

Poor ergonomics

Your ergonomics, such as bad posture while working or exercising, can expose your back to repetitive stress. A build-up of continuous strain can cause additional symptoms and pain, even leading up to nighttime.

Medical conditions

If you've tried fixing potential environmental factors that may contribute to morning back pain with little success, your symptoms could be due to a medical condition. You should make an appointment with your doctor for a diagnosis and possible treatment.

There are a number of medical conditions that can cause lower back pain when waking up, including:

Disc degeneration

Degenerative disc disease generally occurs without any big triggering event. It is often a result of natural wear and tear and aging. Over time, the discs between your vertebrae begin to lose their ability to cushion and keep the spine flexible. This can lead to extreme discomfort and pain that worsens in the morning. In some cases⁴, disc degeneration doesn't cause any discomfort. The pressure inside your disc is greater upon waking up.

Your doctor may prescribe pain medication, physical therapy, or steroid injections to relieve your pain.

A herniated disc

Herniated discs occur when the material inside it begins to protrude. This is comparable to the oozing of jelly from a donut. The leaking insides of a herniated disc can compress structures around it, including nerves and the spinal cord. The pain you experience with a herniated disc can be worse in the morning due to the long periods of inactivity and poor positioning while you sleep.

Pregnancy

Back pain is very common during pregnancy, especially in the later months⁵. However, some women can also have back pain in their early months.

During pregnancy, the increased weight in the stomach can strain your supportive lower back muscles. Repetitive stress and strain can carry over through the night and into the morning. Over time, muscle tightness and stiffness occur due to extra weight from the pregnant belly.

Some women can find relief through a range of strategies, including exercise, wearing a pregnancy belt, hydrotherapy, heat packs (away from the belly), and seeking physical therapy.

How can you help treat or relieve lower back pain when you wake up?

Some methods you can try to relieve your lower back pain in the morning include:

1. Stretching

Stretch before getting out of bed. While you lie on your back, stretch your arms up over your head as far as possible. At the same time, stretch your feet out in the other direction. Now, draw your knees towards your chest and hold to stretch your lower back. You can also rock gently from side to side if it feels helpful for relieving your discomfort.

Then, sit up with your feet planted on the floor shoulder-width apart and stretch your arms to the ceiling and to the sides for an all-over stretch.

2. Exercise

Exercising during the day is important for easing back pain. One of the best exercises you can do is walking⁶, which can help you to develop a resilient back. This can be achieved by aiming for 5,000-10,000 steps a day. If this is too much, try swimming to ease the stress on your back.

It's also important you take frequent breaks, particularly if you work in an occupation which involves lots of sitting (e.g., office work, driving, etc.). Every 30 minutes, stand up and stretch. You may want to consider a standing desk that will help keep your spine mobile at work.

3. Over-the-counter medications

Sometimes, moderate-to-severe back pain will require immediate relief. Talk with your doctor about possibly taking painkillers like ibuprofen or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). NSAIDs also help reduce the inflammation that can contribute to your pain and discomfort.

4. TENS

TENS machines are a non-medicated option to help relieve lower back pain. These machines use electrical currents to block the pain signals to and from the brain to the affected area. Clinical reviews⁷ show TENS can help with severe chronic musculoskeletal pain, but individuals may need to build up a tolerance to the electrical currents over time. Consult with your doctor to see whether using a TENS machine may be beneficial for your back pain.

When should you see a doctor?

If you're suffering from morning back pain that doesn't get better with self-care measures, you'll want to speak with your doctor. It's essential that you seek medical treatment promptly if you're experiencing severe pain that makes your day-to-day movement and activities difficult.

You should also see your doctor right away if your back pain occurs alongside any one or more of these symptoms:

  • Weakness or loss of feeling in your legs or arms

  • Bladder or bowel problems

  • Shortness of breath

  • Severe and persistent night pain

  • Unexplained weight loss

  • Sudden fever accompanying lower back pain

Your doctor will likely review your symptoms and medical history and perform a physical exam. They may also suggest imaging tests, such as CT scans, X-rays, or MRIs, to help diagnose the underlying cause of your morning back pain.

The lowdown

Waking up with lower back pain is usually due to excessive strain on your body during the day or from bad sleeping habits. But, it can also be a sign of a specific medical condition, including degenerative disc disease or a herniated disc. If self-care measures (e.g., changing your mattress, adjusting your sleep posture, etc.) do not assist, it may be worthwhile consulting your doctor. Additionally, see your doctor if you're experiencing severe back pain that limits movement or affects your ability to perform essential day-to-day activities.

Have you considered clinical trials for Lower back pain?

We make it easy for you to participate in a clinical trial for Lower back pain, and get access to the latest treatments not yet widely available - and be a part of finding a cure.

Joining community groups and exercise programs for my condition made me feel empowered – but I want to be part of finding a cure.
Peter, 64

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