Nearly 70% of all Americans will experience back pain at some point in their life. After the cold bug, it is the second most common reason people go to the doctor and call in sick to work. Much of the back pain experienced can be classified as acute pain. Acute pain is a short-term problem that is usually caused from activity or injury where the person experiences symptoms for less than a month. Many people who have acute pain will feel relief within two weeks or less. Chronic problems (pain experienced for usually longer than a month) are more often caused from degenerative conditions.
Most of the cases of back pain stem from stresses on the muscles or ligaments from, say, lifting improperly or too much weight. Many aches and pains will go away within a week without treatment, but some problems, like numbness, pins and needles, or a weakening in the legs or arms should be looked at immediately by a health care professional.
Here are some short descriptions of common back problems:
- Strains – Strain or “pulled back” occurs when muscle fibers on the back are torn or stretched, which can occur from both trauma and a more gradual overuse. Some strains happen while lifting something improperly; other strains can come from overuse or repetitive motion such as twisting and leaning while at a workstation. After the muscle is torn or over-stretched, inflammation occurs around the area to protect the strain from getting worse. Inflammation often causes stiffness and a reduction in the range in motion.
- Sprains – A back sprain is an injury to a ligament in the back. Ligaments are the fibrous tissues that connect the bones of the back, or more specifically the vertebrae. A sprain can occur when there is a quick or sudden movement, for example a car or bike accident, and the muscles of the back cannot react quickly enough to hold the spine in place, so the ligaments holding the spine together are torn or stretched. Symptoms can range from inflammation to bruising to almost complete immobility. Most commonly, sprains are short-term injuries.
- Spasms – Back spasms are unusual, involuntary and sometimes prolonged contractions of a muscle in the back. Back spasms can occur in any muscle in the back, but most often occur in the lower region. These muscle contractions can happen to protect another part of the back from further injury. For instance, if there is an injury in the region of the spine, such as a sprained ligament, the muscle can spasm and because of the pain, immobilize that area of the back. This keeps the person from moving and therefore keeps the injury from further tearing. However, there are many different internal reasons for a back spasm such as tetanus, arthritis or even a tumor.
- Osteoarthritis or Spondylosis – Spinal osteoarthritis is a disease in the joints of the spine. Each vertebra has joints that connect them. A lubricating connective tissue, called cartilage, helps the joints bend and move fluidly. As cartilage breaks down, the vertebrae are unable to smoothly glide, so the bones of the spine or the facet joints (the joints where the vertebrae are connected) begin to rub together. This degeneration of the cartilage is called osteoarthritis, spondylosis, or degenerative joint disease.
- Herniated disks – Herniated disks are disks that rupture or bulge out between the vertebrae and begin to pinch the nerves in the spine or the spinal cord. It is possible for disks in the upper part of the spine to herniate, but it is most common in the lower or lumbar region. As people get older the soft, cushiony disks between the spine can lose their elasticity. As elasticity dissipates, the disk can tear or rupture.
- Sciatica – The sciatic nerve runs from the base of the spinal cord down through the buttock and into the leg. Disk problems, including bulging, compression or other inflammation at the nerve’s root can cause aching and pain all the way down the leg. This pain is called Sciatica. With proper care, most sciatica will go away within two weeks to a month. On occasion other damaging factors may be in play, so proper diagnosis is important.
- Osteoporosis – Osteoporosis is a disease where the bones become brittle, porous, fragile and break easily. Any bone can break with osteoporosis, but breaks most often occur in the hips, wrists and spine (vertebrae). Osteoporosis comes from a lack of bone mass or a structural deterioration of the bone.
- Degenerative Disk Disease – Most people will experience degeneration of their invertebral disks as they age. There are disks located between the majority of the vertebrae that have gel-like centers that pad the bones of the spine. Over time the center can dehydrate and compress. This deterioration can lead to several different chronic conditions, such as arthritis, pinched nerves or osteophytes.
- Fibromyalgia – Fibromyalgia Syndrome is an incapacitating, painful and uncomfortable chronic condition that affects the soft tissues of the body, e.g. muscles, tendons, and ligaments. There is not one definitive cause or trigger, but several symptoms that can help determine if a patient has the condition. It is a musculoskeletal disorder that is still somewhat of a mystery, but is recognized by the combination of several symptoms, such as tenderness to the touch, muscle aches and general unexplainable tiredness.
- Scoliosis – Scoliosis is an unusual lateral curvature of the spine. Though it is relatively common in its mild form, doctors do not know the actual cause. Teenage girls are the most at risk, but the severe cases only happen to about 3% of the population.
- Spinal Stenosis – Spinal Stenosis is a narrowing of the spinal canal (the canal where the spinal cord sits). Disk dehydration that comes with aging, inflammation, or sometimes, other more serious causes narrow the canal. Often occurring in the lower back where most of the spine’s stress is centered, this narrowing pinches the spinal cord and other nerves, which radiates pain throughout the back and the down through the legs.
Treatments for back pain range from stretching to herbs and medication to surgery or other medical procedures. Since most acute pain will go away by itself within a week, surgery is only needed for a small percentage of sufferers. Anyone who experiences severe back pain that doesn’t go away after a week, numbness and tingling, or bowel/bladder control problems should seek the advice of a health care professional.