Back pain is one of the most common complaints people have, regardless of what other conditions they might also have. The Mayo Clinic estimates that approximately 80% of Americans will experience back pain in their lives at least once.1,2
Abdominal pain is a common symptom experienced by those living with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), but the link between low back pain and IBS isn’t as clearly defined.
Common causes of back pain
Acute back pain comes on suddenly and typically lasts less than six weeks, while chronic back pain is defined as lasting more than three months. (Chronic back pain is less common than acute back pain.) Common causes of back pain include strains to the muscles or ligaments, bulging or ruptured discs (between the vertebrae in the spine), arthritis, skeletal irregularities like scoliosis, or osteoporosis.2
Symptoms of back pain
Back pain may cause muscle aches, shooting or stabbing pains, pain that radiates down the leg, or stiffness and limited range of motion. Rarely, back pain can signal a serious condition, and immediate medical attention should be sought for back pain that is accompanied by a fever, follows a fall or injury, or back pain that causes a new bowel or bladder problem. (For those with IBS, a new bowel problem with back pain would be different than their usual symptoms. If you are unsure whether your bowel problem is related to your back pain, consult your doctor.) Additional symptoms that warrant medical attention are back pain that is severe and doesn’t ease with rest, pain that spreads down the legs (especially below the knee), pain that causes weakness, numbness or tingling, and pain that is occurs with unexplained weight loss.2
Back pain and IBS
While few studies have looked at the prevalence of back pain in people with IBS, it is possible for the abdominal pain of IBS to refer to the back. Referred pain occurs when the perception of where pain is felt is distant from the actual cause of pain. One example of this is when people experience jaw pain during a heart attack – the jaw and teeth aren’t the cause of the pain, but the heart attack refers pain to the jaw. The internal organs can often refer pain to other sites, so it is possible for pain caused by IBS to be referred to the back.3
One Australian study that evaluated whether there is an increased risk of back pain in women with respiratory disorders, incontinence, or gastrointestinal symptoms found that the presence of these conditions was associated with the development of back pain. The study authors noted that people with gastrointestinal symptoms may have viscerosomatic hyperalgesia, an increased sensitivity to pain in the abdomen which is believed to be the result of alterations in the brain-gut pathway.4,5
There is also a link between IBS and fibromyalgia, which causes widespread pain in the muscles, ligaments, and tendons. While fibromyalgia pain can occur throughout the body, the back can be affected by pain.6
Treatment for back pain and IBS
While there isn’t a specific or single treatment for back pain and IBS, many of the treatments that can ease IBS symptoms may also ease back pain, particularly if the back pain is due to abdominal bloating, cramping, diarrhea, or constipation. In addition, many of the complementary treatments, like acupuncture or mind-body techniques, can be helpful to ease symptoms of both back pain and IBS. If you’re experiencing back pain, make sure to tell your doctor about it as well as all your symptoms and ask what treatment options are best for your individual situation.