Back pain is one of the most common types of body pain among people of all ages. Moreover, it is known to be the leading cause of disability across the world. It may result from an underlying medical condition, injury, or due to physical activity. Depending on the cause of back pain, the level of pain varies from person to person. The risk of developing back pain increases with age due to lifestyle and physical health changes, indicating degenerative disk disease. Upper back pain may indicate spine inflammation, disorders of the aorta, and tumors in the chest. On the other hand, lower back pain can signify several potential health conditions such as infections of the spine, arthritis, a ruptured or herniated disc, kidney infections, sciatica, and cancer of the spinal cord.
What are the causes of back pain?
The human back consists of bones, ligaments, discs, tendons, and a complex structure of muscles that combine to support the body’s structure and movements. For example, the term disk refers to the spinal segments that are cushioned with cartilage-like pads. Problems within these complex components can cause back pain. However, in some cases, the cause of the back pain remains unclear.
Some of the causes of back pain include the following.
The muscles and ligaments in the back are susceptible to a tear or stretch due to strenuous physical activities or abrupt movement, causing severe back pain. It can last for a few hours, days, or weeks upon certain postures, positions, and movements. For example, if you stand upright or bend forward or backwards with a muscle strain, you are likely to experience back pain and stiffness, which may last for 1 to 2 weeks. However, it can be relieved with rest and physical therapy.
As you get older, the discs in the back become susceptible to an injury that can lead to severe back pain. In such cases, the outside of the disc may tear or herniate. A herniated disc can occur if the cartilage around the disc pushes against the nerve roots or spinal cord. It can further lead to a compression in the nerve root in the lower spinal cord and within the vertebral bones. Lifting heavy weights or twisting the back are likely to result in disc injury, causing back pain that may last for more than three days.
Sciatic nerve branches from the lower back area to the hips and legs. These nerves are prone to severe pain that radiates through their path within the lower body, affecting one side of the body. This pain can feel like burning or pinching within the body.
Spinal stenosis refers to the narrowing of the spaces within the spinal cord. Moreover, it may occur due to degeneration of the discs between the vertebrae. As a result, it exerts pressure on the nerves through the spine, causing pain, weakness, numbing, and discomfort. These symptoms may worsen while standing, lying on your back, or walking.
Abnormal Spinal Curvatures
Spinal deformities such as scoliosis, lordosis, and kyphosis cause abnormal curvatures within the spine. Scoliosis refers to the condition that forms a spinal curve in the shape of the letter “S.” Similarly, kyphosis refers to the back-to-back curve’s forward rounding due to an increased front-to-back curve in the upper spinal cord. On the other hand, lordosis is the condition where the lumbar spine develops an inward curve. These congenital conditions cause severe pain in the back and poor posture as the abnormal curvature in the spine exerts pressure on the muscles, ligaments, tendons, and vertebrae.
Arthritis causes inflammation, swelling, and tenderness within the joints leading to joint pain and stiffness, which may worsen with age. In the initial stages, arthritis feels like a burning sensation or a dull ache within the joints. However, if left untreated, the pain may increase, leading to difficulty walking, climbing up a flight of stairs, exercising, or carrying out simple tasks throughout the day.
Spondylitis refers to inflammation in the spinal bones or vertebrae, which can leave your spine hunched, leading to back pain, swelling, and stiffness. It may occur due to extreme tiredness (fatigue), inflammation in the joints (arthritis), or inflammation where a tendon joins a bone (enthesitis). It can potentially affect joints in the shoulders, ankles, feet, toes, fingers, knees, hands, elbows, and wrists.
Fibromyalgia is a long-term condition that causes musculoskeletal pain, mood swings, fatigue, memory issues, and sleep disorders such as insomnia or sleep apnea. It can be triggered due to emotional or physical stress, viral infection, or an injury.
Spondylosis refers to the pain caused by degenerative conditions of the spine due to aging. As a result, people experiencing this condition are prone to tingling and pain that radiates to the chest, ribs, or abdominal areas, the pressure within the surrounding nerves causing numbness, aching stiffness, or muscle spasms.
Pain due to kidney problems such as kidney stones, UTIs, and trauma to the kidneys may occur on both sides of the lower back. However, in some cases, an affected person may feel a dull ache on only one side of the back.
Osteoporosis affects bones, including the vertebrae of the spine, increasing the risk of compression fractures. In addition, it causes severe back pain that may worsen while standing, walking, or lying on the bed, making it difficult to twist or bend the body.
Movement and Posture
Sitting in a very hunched posture while using computers can cause back and shoulder pain. Similarly, everyday activities and movements such as overstretching while cycling, twisting during exercise, straining the neck forward while driving, or sleeping on an uncomfortable mattress can result in severe back pain.
Some people experience back pain due to the following conditions.
- Uterine fibroids
- Cauda equine syndrome
- Ovarian cysts
What are the symptoms of back pain?
A pain or ache in the back, hips, and legs indicates back pain. Similarly, some back issues may affect the nerves within a specific part of the body leading to back pain. It usually lasts for a few hours to a day and goes away on its own without any treatment. However, if back pain persists for a longer period combined with the following symptoms, you should consider visiting a healthcare professional for a treatment plan.
- Pain in the legs
- Unexplained weight loss
- Swelling or inflammation on the back
- Pain that radiates to the knees
- Numbness around the genital area
- Numbness around the hips
- Numbness in the legs
- Persistent back pain that does not improve after rest
- An injury, trauma, or blow to the back area
- Difficulty urinating
- Urinary incontinence
- Fecal incontinence or unusual bowel movements
How is back pain diagnosed?
A doctor will perform a physical examination followed by the medical history and symptoms of the back pain. To diagnose back pain, the doctor may require the following imaging scans and tests to understand the cause of the pain.
X-rays are used to check the alignment of the bones; hence, they indicate broken bones or arthritis that may cause back pain.
CT Scans or MRI
Ct scans and MRI can show herniated disks or issues with nerves, blood vessels, tissues, muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones that lead to pain in the back of the body.
Electromyography is used to measure the electrical impulses released by nerves in response to the muscles. For example, it can detect nerve compression caused by spinal stenosis or herniated disk, leading to back pain.
Bone scans can reveal bone tumors and compression fractures due to osteoporosis that causes back pain.
The doctor may further require a blood test to suspect infections that may result in back pain.
Other types of diagnosis for back pain include the following.
An osteopath can detect the cause of back pain through visual inspection and palpation involving slow and rhythmic stretching, pressure, and manipulation of muscles and joints.
A chiropractor uses different palpation, touch, and visual examination methods to adjust the spinal joints. In some cases, the chiropractor may require a blood test, urine test, and imaging scans to fix back pain.
A physical therapist can diagnose problems within the joints and soft tissues of the body to relieve back pain.
What are the treatment options for lower back pain?
Back pain can be alleviated with home remedies, physical therapy, and rest; however, it may require medications or surgery to resolve the pain in serious cases.
Your doctor will recommend drugs and medications according to your symptoms to relieve back pain. Some of the prescribed medications may include the following.
- Steroids to reduce inflammation
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- Corticosteroid injections
- Muscle relaxants
- Narcotic drugs such as codeine for pain relief
Your doctor may recommend the following physical therapy options to alleviate back pain.
- Strengthening exercises
- Back and spinal manipulation
In severe cases, your doctor may recommend surgical processes as the only option for treatment. For example, surgery becomes an emergency option if a person experiences loss of bowel, neurological loss, or bladder control.
Radiofrequency lesioning or ablation
This process is performed using radio waves to change the way the nerves communicate with each other.
This surgical procedure can open up the bony hole within the spinal canal called foramen to enlarge the area surrounding the bones in the spinal column.
It is a minimally invasive procedure that uses a wand-like device and radio waves to shrink the tissue in the body that causes back pain.
This surgical procedure is performed to relieve pressure from a nerve root by removing the bony part of the spinal canal.
This process is used to strengthen the spine by removing discs between the vertebrae of the spinal cord and fusing them next to each other using special metal screws.
Intradiscal Electrothermal Therapy (IDET)
It involves a needle inserted into the disc through the catheter by heating it. This process thickens the disc wall and reduces the inner disc’s bulging and irritation within the nerve.
Home care is the best remedy for back pain that lasts for up to 72 hours. However, if the pain persists longer than three days, you should call your doctor for a checkup.
Applying ice to the lower back can take away your pain within a few minutes.
Placing heating pads on your lower back can boost circulation around the joints and muscles that cause back pain.
Over-The-Counter Pain Medication
Medicines such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB) can instantly relieve back pain.
The RICE method includes rest, icing, compression, and elevation of your back area to reduce back pain.
In some cases, lying on the back can cause discomfort and pain. Changing your posture while sleeping can help alleviate back pain. Use a pillow between your legs while lying on your side and bending your knees to reduce the pressure on your lower back.
A warm bath can relax your stiff muscles and relieve back pain. For best results, add a cup of pink Himalayan salt in lukewarm water in the bathtub to boost your blood circulation and alleviate back pain.
There are several ways to prevent the risk of back pain. For example, maintaining a proper posture, losing weight, sleeping on a firm surface, and exercising your abdomen and back muscles can save you from pain in the back. However, if your back pain does not improve despite taking preventive measures, visit your doctor for a diagnosis and treatment plan that can relieve your pain.
If you are suffering from back pain related symptoms, schedule a free consultation with us now to discuss treatment options!