Joint Problems and Low Back Pain

Medically Reviewed by Tyler Wheeler, MD on February 24, 2024
4 min read

Most low back pain is caused by muscle problems like muscle strain. But joint problems can cause low back pain, too. Joints connect your bones. They’re made of tissue and cartilage. Certain joints play a big role in how your back feels and works.

Your sacroiliac joints are where your spine meets your pelvis. Your facet joints are in your spine. If your sacroiliac or facet joints are damaged, inflamed, or begin to break down (for example, from a condition like arthritis), you could have low back pain.

Some of the things that can affect the sacroiliac and facet joints and lead to low back pain include:

Arthritis. The two most common forms of arthritis are:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis (RA), a chronic inflammatory condition that affects your autoimmune system and causes joint damage
  • Osteoarthritis, which is when the protective cartilage at the ends of your joints wears away because of age and overuse

Both rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis can cause inflammation and joint damage in your lower back.

If you have arthritis, you’re most likely to feel back pain in your lower back. That’s because your low back carries most of your body weight.

Other forms of arthritis, like psoriatic arthritis, can also bring pain to your low back.

Ankylosing spondylitis. This is a type of arthritis that inflames the joints around the base of your spine, hips, and pelvis. There’s no cure, but your doctor can help you manage your symptoms. Symptoms usually start in late teens or early adulthood.

Symptoms of AS can be somewhat different in each person, but they tend to flare up and then go away for a while before they return. Serious pain and stiffness in the lower back and hips are quite common. Other symptoms could include:

  • Back pain, usually worse at night when you rest
  • Stiffness in the early morning
  • Stiffness in your spine
  • Posture that stoops forward to relieve pain
  • Joint pain
  • Eye irritation and inflammation
  • Skin rashes
  • A hard time taking a deep breath of air
  • Unexplained loss of appetite
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Tiredness
  • Fever
  • Gut pain and diarrhea

AS symptoms can mimic other health conditions, so it’s important to see your doctor for a correct diagnosis.

Only a doctor can diagnose you with a joint disorder like arthritis. If your doctor thinks you may have a joint disorder, they’ll take your health history and do a physical exam.

Other symptoms, like swollen joints or morning stiffness, can be a sign that your back pain is from a condition that affects your joints rather than muscle strain. Your doctor may also recommend tests like X-rays and blood tests to see what’s going on.

It can be helpful to keep a journal about your pain. Jot down when it hits and what you were doing before and when it came. You’ll also want to write down whether you had any other symptoms that day. This can help your doctor figure out the cause of your pain and come up with a treatment plan.

Which treatment you and your doctor will decide on will depend on the type of joint problem you have and how serious it is.

For example, if you have rheumatoid arthritis and show signs of joint damage, your doctor may recommend a prescription medication like a disease-modifying antirheumatic drug. You may hear it called a DMARD. DMARDs ease inflammation and help keep your joint damage from getting worse.

Many of the things that can ease back pain caused by other problems (like muscle strain) can help with joint problems, too. Talk to your doctor about:

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs). These medications target inflammation and pain, which is why they’re often recommended for back problems. You can get many NSAIDs over the counter. You may be able to use them with other types of medication for joint pain.

Exercise. Gentle activities, like water aerobics, tai chi, or yoga, can really help ease low back pain from joint problems. Any movement that doesn’t cause more pain is helpful. Talk to your doctor or a physical therapist if you’re not sure where to start or how to exercise safely.

Squashing stress. Stress and anxiety make low back pain worse. But easing stress through talk therapy, mindfulness training, or other methods can ease pain and improve your quality of life. Your doctor can talk over stress-busting techniques with you.

Keeping a healthy weight. Carrying extra pounds strains your lower back and puts pressure on your joints. Both lead to low back pain. Diet and exercise can help you stay on track. Your doctor can help you figure out where to start.