Overview and Facts
Back pain is a pain felt in the back that typically originates from muscles, nerves, joints, bones or other structures in the spine. It is a very common problem for many in the United States, affecting up to 80% of people at some point in their lives. Back pain can come in many forms, including lower back pain, middle back pain or upper back pain. It is one of the most common reasons cited by adults for doctor visits and missing work.
If back pain lasts for more than three months, it is considered chronic back pain. Most back pain eventually goes away on its own, but one can find back pain relief with back pain medication.
What is sciatica?
Sciatica occurs when the sciatica nerve is irritated, which results in pain that starts in the back and travels down the thigh and outside of the leg. Sciatica pain results from damage to or pressure to the nerves that comprise the sciatic nerve.
Signs and Symptoms
Back pain is quite simply, pain in the back. But, it can range in intensity. It can be a sudden, sharp pain or more of a lingering ache. If back pain is sporadic and lasts a few days to a few weeks, it is acute back pain. Acute back pain tends to come on suddenly. Chronic back pain is back pain that lasts for more than three months and tends to be more gradual in its onset.
Back pain is usually described as sore, burning, pulling, aching, tight and stiff. The pain may be more intense at certain times of day like the morning. The pain is likely to worsen while walking, sitting, bending or standing for a long period of time in one position.
Causes and Diagnosis
There are many possible causes of back pain, including injuries, accidents and strains. Although the causes of back pain are most often physical, sometimes emotional stress can affect how severe the pain is and how long it lasts.
Some of the more common causes of back pain are:
- Injuries – spinal injuries can cause either acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term) back pain. Back pain can also result from injuries that are a result of a bad fall.
- Mechanical problems – intervertebral disk degeneration, which means that the disks located between the vertebrae of the spine are breaking down, is the most common mechanical cause of back pain. Muscle tension, herniated disks and spasms are other problems that can cause back pain
- Medical problems – Scoliosis (curvature of spine), certain forms of arthritis and spinal stenosis (narrowing of spinal column that puts pressure on spinal cord and nerves) can cause back pain
- Musculoskeletal pain syndromes – myofascial pain syndromes and fibromyalgia can cause low back pain
- Infections – infections are not quite as common in causing back pain, but they can cause back pain when they involve the vertebrae
If you suffer from back pain, a doctor will perform a complete medical history and physical exam. He will talk to you about your pain, where your back pain is located and any events that may have caused the back pain. Your doctor may also use one of the following techniques to do a diagnostic study:
- X-ray – this provides detail of the bones structures in the spine
- CT scan – identifies conditions such as a herniated disk or spinal stenosis
- MRI – shows detail about the back’s discs and nerve roots
Tests and Treatment Options
Usually, back pain that exists for a few days or weeks will eventually resolve itself without back pain treatment. Getting rest and perhaps taking over-the- counter pain relievers may provide back pain relief in the short-term.
However, when back pain is chronic and it lasts long-term, back pain treatment may be required in order to provide back pain relief. Or, if an individual has fallen and has pain after, treatment may be necessary. If an individual experiences back pain along with problems such as numbness in legs, weakness, fever or trouble urinating, he or she should immediately see a doctor as it could indicate a serious medical condition.
Forms of back pain treatment:
- Over-the-counter pain relievers
- Physical therapy – a physical therapist may apply heat, ice or electricity to the back muscles to reduce pain
- Exercise – this can aid with current back problems and help prevent new occurrences of back pain.
- Prescription medications – non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, narcotic pain relievers and muscle relaxants may all be prescribed to relieve back pain
- Surgery – in rare cases, surgery may be used to provide back pain relief. Usually, it is only warranted if the individual has a herniated disk.
Helpful Tips and Home Remedies
There are certain things that you may do in your everyday life that could put you at risk for back pain. Being conscious of these things can help prevent back pain.
- Improper lifting – always lift with your knees. When you lift, be sure to get close to the object, bend your knees and lift straight up (don’t twist). Bend your knees when you set the object down, too.
- Posture – bad posture places stress on the spine. To improve your posture when standing, keep your shoulders back, knees straight, and chin slightly tucked in.
- Inactivity – when you don’t exercise, your spine may suffer. If you are overweight and do not exercise, you are more likely to suffer from back pain.
- Smoking – nicotine blocks oxygen from getting to the spine’s disks. This means they can not as easily repair themselves and may collapse, which can lead to severe, chronic back pain