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Back Pain

Your back is an intricate structure of bones, disks and muscles. (Read about "The Spine") The bones of the back are called the vertebrae. (Read about "Skeletal System") In between the bones are cushions called disks. Because of the back's complexity and its weight-bearing responsibility, it's not surprising that the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health says that back pain is one of the most common medical problems in the country.

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), back pain can be acute or chronic. Acute or short-term low back pain generally lasts from a few days to a few weeks. Most acute back pain is the result of trauma to the lower back or a disorder such as arthritis. (Read about "Arthritis & Rheumatic Diseases") Pain from trauma may be caused by a sports injury, work around the house or in the garden, or a sudden jolt such as a car accident or other stress on spinal bones and tissues. Symptoms may range from muscle ache to shooting or stabbing pain, limited flexibility and range of motion or an inability to stand straight. Chronic back pain is pain that persists for more than 3 months. (Read about "Chronic Pain") It is often progressive and the cause can be difficult to determine.

The SpineBack pain can be caused by underlying physical problems; it may also result from lifestyle habits. The American Association of Neurological Surgeons says that potential causes of back pain include:

Disks are the cushioning pads between the bones of your back. If a disk ruptures (sometimes called a "slipped" disk) it can cause severe pain that may radiate beyond the back and into an arm or leg. Damage to the disks or muscles of the back can happen during heavy lifting or other activity.

Back pain can also develop as a result of a number of diseases and conditions. According to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), these include:

In addition to injury and disease, lifestyle habits can contribute to back pain. Lack of muscle tone in the stomach muscles supporting the back can contribute to the development of back pain. The American Council on Exercise says poor posture is another culprit. Ask yourself this: as you're reading this screen, how's YOUR posture? Slouching and leaning for extended periods of time can cause back problems and should be avoided. (Read about "Avoid Back Pain")

If you are overweight, losing weight can help to avoid back problems. (Read about "Losing Weight" "Waist-to-Hip Ratio")

Women who are pregnant can develop back pain, because of the extra weight they are carrying and because pregnancy changes their posture and center of gravity. (Read about "Healthy Pregnancy")

The way you lift and carry things can also cause problems for your back. Adults who do heavy lifting on the job or at home should make sure they are using proper lifting techniques. Children and teenagers should also be careful, for example when using backpacks for school. (Read about "Back Tips")

In addition, you can also cause problems for yourself when playing sports. For example, stress fractures can develop in the spine as a result of overuse or hyperextension. (Read about "Bone Fractures") A spinal stress fracture called spondylolysis may result from a degenerative condition or an accident or may be acquired at birth. (Read about spondylolysis in "The Spine")

NIAMS says that, although the causes of back pain are usually physical, it is important to know that emotional stress can play a role in how severe pain is and how long it lasts. Stress can affect the body in many ways, including causing back muscles to become tense and painful. (Read about "Stress")


The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) says that if back pain persists and/or extends into your legs or is accompanied by numbness or tingling, it's essential to contact your doctor. If back pain is the result of injury or disease, your doctor may order an MRI or x-ray to determine the extent of the damage. (Read about "MRI - Magnetic Resonance Imaging" "X-rays") Your doctor may also order a CT scan (Read about "CT Scan - Computerized Tomography") to look for problems including herniated discs, tumors, or spinal stenosis.

Many back problems will eventually go away after a period of rest and recovery. Your doctor may suggest an analgesic to relieve some of the pain or swelling during this time. Muscle relaxants or cortisone injections may provide temporary relief in some cases. Sometimes therapy involving heat or ice, as well as massage (Read about massage in "CAM Therapies") or light exercise can help. Physical therapy can help to reduce pain. (Read about "Rehabilitation") As the pain goes away, a physical therapist can also teach you specific exercises that can strengthen your back and improve flexibility. Surgery may be required in some cases as well. (Read about "Neurosurgery")

When back pain is the result of lifestyle, AAFP says some simple changes can make a big difference. Good posture when sitting or standing can reduce the pressure on your back. Chairs should offer good support for your back. Avoid leaning over a desk, slouching, or twisting. (Read about "Back Tips")

If your job requires lifting, most experts recommend that you avoid bending from the waist and instead bend the knees. It's also important to avoid twisting the trunk while lifting objects. (Read about "Strains")

In addition, the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) says you can minimize back pain problems with exercises designed to make the muscles in your back, stomach, hips and thighs strong and flexible. Talk with a doctor or physical therapist about specific exercises to strengthen and stretch these muscles. AAOS says exercises to ask about include partial sit-ups, wall slides, and leg lifts. Proper form when performing these exercises is essential, however, so make sure a trained specialist shows you the right way to do them first.

If back pain persists or is linked with an underlying physical problem, surgery may be considered. For example, if back pain is caused by a herniated disk, surgery to remove or replace the disk (discectomy) can provide relief. Spinal fusion may also be used to treat injuries, ruptured disks and scoliosis. Two or more vertebrae are fused together using bone and/or metal rods. It decreases the flexibility. AAOS says over a quarter million spine fusions are done each year, with more done to the lower (lumbar) back than the upper (cervical) area. Laminectomy is the removal of the bony area at the back of the vertebra, the lamina, to relieve pressure. It is often done in conjunction with discectomy and fusion. (Read about "The Spine")

And again, if someone is already experiencing back pain, it's essential that they check with their doctor before starting any program of exercise; otherwise, they run the risk of compounding the problem.

Related Information:

    Back Tips

    Curvature of the Spine

All Concept Communications material is provided for information only and is neither advice nor a substitute for proper medical care. Consult a qualified healthcare professional who understands your particular history for individual concerns.

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By printing and/or reading this article, you agree that you accept all terms and conditions of use, as specified online.