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Can Dehydration Cause Lower Back Pain?

Approximately four out of every five Americans will experience lower back pain at some point in their lives, making lower back pain one of the most common reasons for missed workdays. There are many different reasons why a person might experience lower back pain, including common causes like spinal cord conditions such as herniated discs, sciatica, spinal stenosis, ankylosing spondylitis, fibromyalgia, scoliosis, radiculopathy, osteomyelitis, compression fractures, cauda equina syndrome, or rheumatoid arthritis. Chronic back pain can also be caused by risk factors like overuse and aging. However, unbeknownst to many Americans, acute back pain can also be caused by dehydration. It’s estimated that up to 75 percent of American adults are chronically dehydrated because they do not drink enough water each day, drinking water only when thirsty, at which point dehydration has already set in. So, how does dehydration cause acute low back pain? 

What Is Dehydration and Why Is It a Problem

Dehydration occurs when the body uses more water than it takes in and does not have enough water to function properly. We lose water from our bodies each day as we breathe, sweat, go to the bathroom, cry, or spit. Overall, the human body is composed of about 60 percent water, and water is the key to the healthy functioning of all of the systems in our bodies. We need water to help the body digest food, absorb vitamins and nutrients, carry waste away, and detoxify the kidneys and liver, among other functions. When people experience chronic dehydration, it can lead to a number of different medical conditions, including headaches, fatigue, joint pain, kidney disease, kidney stones, ulcers, high blood pressure, weight gain, and more. These conditions require treatment by a health care professional. Treatment options for chronic pain vary on the underlying causes of back pain but can include bed rest, weight loss to a healthy weight, physical therapy, orthopaedic surgery, muscle relaxants, spinal manipulation, steroid injections, anti-inflammatory drugs, and over-the-counter pain medications like ibuprofen, acetaminophen, and Naproxen. 

What Are the Symptoms of Dehydration?

How do you tell if you’re dehydrated? Well, the first way to know is if you feel thirsty. While many people believe that you only need to drink water when you’re thirsty, thirst is actually a sign that your body is already dehydrated. Other symptoms indicating mild to moderate dehydration include:

  • Dry or sticky mouth
  • Dark yellow urine
  • Headache
  • Not urinating very much or very often
  • Dry, cool skin
  • Muscle cramps

Most people who experience chronic dehydration suffer from mild or moderate dehydration. When a person becomes severely dehydrated, symptoms may include:

  • Not urinating 
  • Having very dark yellow or brown urine
  • Feeling dizzy
  • Rapid breathing
  • Sleepiness, lack of energy, irritability, or confusion
  • Very dry skin
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Sunken eyes
  • Fainting

How Does Dehydration Cause Lower Back Pain?

We’ve already established that our bodies are made mostly of water, which is critical for proper functioning in the short-term. In the long term, dehydration can cause lower back pain when it begins to impact the soft tissues in the discs that are located between each vertebra of the spine. These discs are responsible for providing shock absorption, cushioning, and mobility for the lumbar spine. Your discs feature a strong fibrous outer ring and a soft gelatinous center that is made up primarily of water. The central gelatinous portion of the disc is responsible for providing the cushioning of your spinal canal. Each day, as our bodies go through our normal range of motion, the water inside our discs slowly leaks out as part of the normal wear and tear of the day. Under normal circumstances, gravity pulls more water down into the spine, helping to rehydrate the discs as you move. When you’re dehydrated, there is not enough water to pull into the discs, causing the size of the discs to shrink as they dehydrate further. As a result, the central part of the disc that is responsible for providing cushioning and shock absorption begins to collapse under the weight of the spine. Even a minor collapse in the discs can begin to put pressure on the sciatic nerve that runs down the spinal column, causing pain to radiate throughout the body. People who are experiencing pain in their lower back muscles due to dehydration may feel the pain in their necks, backs, or legs as the spinal nerves send pain signals throughout the body even during normal activities or physical activity. If the dehydration continues, the discs may start to swell, and pressure exerted on the swollen disc can cause the disc to become herniated. If you experience lower back pain and suspect that you may not be drinking enough water, your back pain could be caused by dehydration although severe pain for long periods of time should be checked out with imaging tests like x-rays to rule out serious conditions that require treatment other than pain relief. 

How Do I Know If I’m Drinking Enough Water?

While you’ve probably heard that drinking eight glasses of water per day will give you the right amount of water per day to avoid dehydration, the reality is that recommendations vary depending on your age, weight, gender, and activity level. The Institute of Medicine of the National Academies conducted a study that showed that people who were adequately hydrated consumed, on average, 2.7 liters (91 ounces) per day for women and 3.7 liters (125 ounces) per day for men between both food and water. Approximately 80 percent of your water intake comes from beverages, while the other 20 percent is derived from food. Some people don’t like the taste of water and struggle to consume enough of it; however, it’s possible to get water from other beverages, such as herbal tea, naturally flavored seltzers, and decaffeinated drinks. However, it’s important to avoid sugary or caffeinated beverages as sources of water, as extra sugar can cause weight gain, while caffeine is dehydrating.

How Can I Get Myself to Drink More Water?

If you struggle to drink enough water, we’ve got a few suggestions. First, try keeping a water bottle next to you at all times. You’re more likely to sip on water if it’s convenient and less likely to drink if doing so requires you to get up from your desk to go get a drink. Second, try infusing your water with fruit or a small splash of fruit juice to add some extra flavor if you hate the taste of plain water. Naturally flavored sparkling water is also a great alternative. Finally, eat more fruits and vegetables, especially those with high water content. You can get more water than you’d think just by eating foods that contain lots of water, like berries, watermelon, greens, and more.