Dehydration Could be the Source of Your Back Pain; Here’s Why

Water is the primary source of all life. From the tiniest cell to the largest tree, water is found almost everywhere throughout nature and is absolutely essential for growth, health and survival; especially within humans.

Every system within your body, whether it be your organs, muscles blood or spine, is impacted by the amount of water you consume. If you’re not drinking enough, your body will not be able to perform at it’s highest potential and, at its worst, can have serious consequences - including back pain.

Most people recognize the importance of staying hydrated, but studies have shown that up to 75% of Americans spend their lives in a chronic state of dehydration because they don’t know how much water they need. They simply drink when they’re thirsty. The problem with this technique is that, by the time your body signals that it’s thirsty, you’re already dehydrated.

Does this sound like you?

Well fear not, staying properly hydrated is far less daunting than it sounds and can have a dramatic impact on how your feel throughout the day.

So, go grab a cup of water then come back and read about how your back pain could be caused by dehydration and what you can do to fix it.

How Dehydration Causes Back Pain

Dehydration can cause back pain when the gelatinous material inside your discs lose water and are unable to hold the weight of your body, this causes the disc to collapse which can put pressure on the sensitive nerves exiting the spinal column.

Between every two vertebrae in your spine, there is a disc and its primary job is to separate interlocking bones and provide cushioning, shock absorption and mobility to the spine.

Now, it’s important to note that your discs are designed a lot like jelly donuts - they have a strong outer ring of fiber with a softer, more gelatinous substance in the center. This gelatinous center (known scientifically as the nucleus pulposus) is made up primarily of water and is what provides the majority of the cushioning for your spine.

Throughout the day, as your spine is enduring natural wear and tear, the water located inside the discs gradually leaks out. Normally this isn’t a problem because gravity pulls water down your spine and allows your discs to constantly rehydrate as you move around.

But, when you’re not drinking enough, there’s not enough water in your body to rehydrate the discs and they begin to shrink.

This is where problems start to arise.

Remember when we said that jelly-like substance in the middle of your discs acts as a shock absorber? Well, when a disc is dehydrated it puts almost all your weight on the outer ring of the disc, which isn’t designed to carry such a heavy load, and it can actually begin to collapse under the pressure. When a disc collapses, even at a minor level, it can start putting pressure on the sensitive nerves within the spinal column which can cause pain throughout the body.

Additionally, dehydrated discs can result in swelling and, if enough pressure is exerted, could lead to a herniated disc.

If you’re struggling with neck, back or even leg pain that flares up occasionally, you should consider drinking more water.

How to Stay Hydrated

The great thing about water is that it’s virtually everywhere and almost always free. This means that it’s easy to stay hydrated and address back pain that could be caused by a lack of water in your discs.

Here are a few tips that can help keep you hydrated and your discs full of water:

  1. Drink More Water -- Over the years, experts have gone back and forth about how much water a person should drink and, unfortunately, there simply isn't a uniform standard for every single person. However, a good rule of thumb, according to Harvard Health, is 4-6 cups a day if you're generally healthy. That said, you need to make sure that you're monitoring yourself because your behavior does have an impact on the amount of water you need.

    For example, if you're outside on a humid summer day and you find that you're sweating a lot, it means that you're losing water at a quicker rate and should probably be drinking more to counteract dehydration.

  2. Drink Plenty of Water When Working Out -- Experts believe that it's possible for the average person to lose anywhere between 17-50 ounces of water for every single hour of exercise.1

    That's a pretty significant range and while most people drink while they’re working out, most simply don’t consume enough to replace what they’re sweating. Typically, people will drink based on how thirsty they feel and while this is definitely a good indication that you should drink, it also points to the fact that your body is also already dehydrated.

    The hypothalamus is the area of the brain that is responsible for stimulating your thirst response. It is constantly scanning your blood to look for high concentrations of sodium and other substances that tend to appear in higher quantities when the body is becoming dehydrated.2 It's also keeping track of fluid levels and pressure in the bloodstream that can vary based on your food consumption, exercise habits, sickness and more. The hypothalamus will typically trigger a thirst response when it notices that your blood pressure is getting too high, levels of sodium have spiked or fluids are low. The issue is that this response is triggered in response to those events already happening which means that, typically, your body has already reached a level dehydration when your thirst response activates.

    Like with most things in health, there really is no agreed-upon hydration standard for every single person on the planet. This is simply because people are different. Body weight, exercise type and intensity, surrounding temperature, physical fitness and more all play a role in how much you sweat. So, you need to know your own body and hone in on how much you need to be drinking specifically.

    However, as you're getting started, experts from the American Council on Exercise recommend that you should be drinking at three different points when you work out:

    2-3 hours before you start working out, you should consume 17-20 ounces of water. Then, 20-30 minutes before your exercise you should drink another 8 ounces.

    While you're working out you should be drinking 7-10 ounces of water every 10-20 minutes depending on the intensity and how much you're sweating.

    Finally you should drink around 8 ounces of water within 30 minutes of finishing your workout. Then, another 16-24 ounces for every pound of weight that you lost.

    It's also helpful to keep in mind that, if you're planning on exercising for more than an hour, you should consider bringing along a sports drink that contains sodium and potassium. A lot of people typically turn to popular sports drinks like Powerade and Gatorade. Both are good, but contain approximately 21 grams of sugar depending on the type of flavor you choose.3 Depending on your body type, this concentrated amount of sugar can cause cramps and stomach pain which can hinder your workout. We typically recommend that athletes who are spending more than an hour working out should try a sports drink that is more natural and contains less sugar; Skratch is one of our favorites.

  3. Keep an Eye on Your Urine -- That’s right, your urine is one of the most accurate ways to tell if your body is hydrated. Creating urine is how the body naturally gets rid of waste products that can float around in the blood stream and extracts toxins that build up in the kidneys. According to Harvard University, when your urine is dark yellow or amber, it means that there is less water and more waste than usual and a pretty strong indication that you're not drinking enough.

    If you're healthy and hydrated, your urine should be pale yellow color.

    Cleveland Clinic has put together a great infographic on the different colors of urine and what they can mean.

    Also keep in mind that when you drink more, you’ll likely start urinating more. For some, the added trips to the bathroom can be inconvenient, but over time your body will adjust to your extra intake of liquid and you won’t need to go as often.

The great thing about being hydrated is that it can do more than just have an impact on your spine health, though that is a huge benefit. It also has cardiovascular benefits, helps clear toxins out of your kidneys, helps deliver nutrients to your muscles, helps your hair grow thicker, makes your skin feel softer along and much, much more.

Drinking 4-6 cups of water a day can seem like a daunting task, but it’s not as hard as it sounds.

An average Nalgene bottle is 32 ounces, or about four cups, which means that you only need to drink less than two to reach your daily goal. Totally feasible. It's also helpful to note that drinking other liquids throughout the day like coffee and juice actually do help push you towards your daily recommended intake amount. Of course, the difference is that you're typically taking in other chemicals, sugars, acids and more with those drinks, so they should be consumed responsibly.

There are dozens of other methods and tricks for staying hydrated online. Simply find what method works best for you and stick with it! Soon enough, it’ll become a healthy habit and relatively easy to keep yourself on track.

If you’re experiencing frequent or severe back pain, consider making an appointment with your spine care specialist.


1. Fetters, K. A. (2018, July 9). How Much You Really Need to Drink When Exercising. Retrieved March 7, 2019, from

2. Perry, S. (2008, March 16). The Neural Regulation of Thirst. Retrieved March 7, 2019, from

3. Bryan, D. (n.d.). Powerade Vs. Gatorade. Retrieved March 7, 2019, from

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Atlantic Brain and Spine A graduate of both Yale and Stanford, Dr. Jae Lim is a board-certified spine surgeon who specializes in minimally invasive spine surgery and robotic spine surgery, significantly reducing surgical impact and recovery times. (703) 876-4270
8501 Arlington Blvd. Suite 330
United States
Jae Y. Lim Ben L. Nguyen