Definition and Overview

Back pain is one of the leading causes of work-related absence in most countries around the world. It is also a very common reason why people consult a doctor. This condition, which is often described as uncomfortable and which can be mild, moderate, or severe, is typically considered a symptom more than a medical condition. At least 80% of the population will experience back pain at least once in their life. Although it affects adults between the ages of 35 and 55, it can be experienced by anyone - young and old.

Back pain is normally linked to conditions that affect the musculoskeletal system, which includes the tendons, muscles, and soft tissues at the back, as well as the nerves, joints, and the spine. Any problem in these interconnected structures can easily cause back pain, which can quickly radiate to other parts of the body. The pain can vary in terms of severity and may become chronic if left untreated.

Risk Factors for Back Pain

Some people are more prone to suffering from back pain than others. The condition is fairly common with those who have mentally and physically stressful job, and those who are pregnant or overweight.

People with sedentary lifestyle also have higher risk factors. Anxiety, depression, and smoking are also known to cause the condition. Moreover, back pain seems to be more common among females than males and tend to develop more often with age.

Symptoms and Causes of Back Pain

Back pain can come in many different forms. It is important to accurately identify the symptoms and to identify its possible underlying cause in order to properly prescribe the right treatment.

Some of the medical problems that cause back pain include:

  1. Injury - Injuries in the spine, such as fractures and sprain, can cause chronic or acute back pain. A sprain typically occurs if the ligaments that support the spine are torn due to improper position. Accidents and falls with impact on the back, especially on the spine, can also lead to this condition.

  2. Structural problems - Conditions such as ruptured spinal disks and disc degeneration are some of the mechanical causes of back pain. With age or improper posture, the discs that form the spine may break down or become injured, leading to pinched nerves.

  3. Acquired conditions - Conditions such as scoliosis, spinal stenosis, kidney stones and arthritis can lead to back pain.

  4. Infection or cancer - Although fairly uncommon, infections and tumors can form in the spine leading to severe pain in the back.

Other fairly common causes include bad sleeping position, bad mattress, prolonged improper posture, and strenuous physical activity. Most causes of back pain are physical in nature. However, there are other factors, such as stress and depression, which dictate the severity and the length by which a patient suffers from back pain.

Who to See & Types of Treatments Available

Majority of back pains don't require immediate care. However, those who experience severe and intermittent pain, as well as those whose everyday activities are disrupted due to the condition, must see a specialist right away. If back pain is accompanied by other symptoms such as fever and chills, leg weakness, weight loss, bladder and bowel movement problems, getting immediate diagnosis and treatment is crucial.

Back pain is diagnosed through one or the combination of the following methods:

  1. X-Ray - this test shows the alignment of the bones and is used to diagnose broken bones or arthritis.

  2. MRI / CT-Scan - these tests detect problems in the tissue, nerves, ligaments, tendons, blood vessels, bones, and muscles.

  3. Bone Scan - this test is used to properly diagnose fractures and bone tumors.

  4. Electromyography (EMG) - the EMG is used to detect compressed or pinched nerves possibly caused by herniated discs or spinal stenosis.

Treatment for Back Pain

Treatments for back pain can vary depending on the length and severity of the pain. The most common treatment options for short-term back pain include:

  1. Proper rest - Applicable for back pains that are related to trauma and injury, a few days of rest allow the injured structures to heal.

  2. Hot and cold compress - Heat and ice packs can relieve back pain by reducing inflammation.

  3. Pain medications - Pain medications such as paracetamol, ibuprofen, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are commonly prescribed to treat the most cases of back pain.

  4. Exercise - Proper exercise is crucial in treating back pain. A physical therapist or chiropractor can suggest exercises that include stretching, as well as strengthening and aerobic conditioning, to make your spine and back stronger and more flexible.

For chronic and long-term back pain, physical therapy, nerve root blocks, facet joint injections, and even surgery may be recommended by your doctor. More advanced methods for treating long-term back pain such as laser therapy, interferential therapy (IFT), electrical nerve stimulation and lumbar support are also available.

References:

  • Friedman, F. Outwitting Back Pain: Why Your Lower Back Hurts and How to Make It Stop, Lyons Press, 2004.
  • Oh, W. The Clinical Journal of Pain, January/February 2004.
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