Back Pain

Written by Mohammed Aftab

Last Updated March 13, 2024

Back pain accounts for a large number of disabilities, missed workdays, and medical costs worldwide. Well, guess what? It's time we took care of this dreadful occurrence! This article will delve deep into the world of back pain, exploring its different types, causes, and the best ways to treat them all. By the end of it, we hope you'll have all the information you need to combat and overcome your specific back pain! Please consult with your physician as we are not medical providers, this is just an article on back pain, not medical advise.

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Key Takeaways:

  • In the most basic manner, back pain can be classified into two: acute (sudden onset, short term) and chronic (severe, long-lasting).
  • Back pain can be caused by poor posture, injuries, muscle overuse, stress, muscle strain, sciatica, and/or degenerative conditions.
  • Symptoms of mild to moderate back pain include dull pain, stiff back, limited range of motion, muscle spasms/tightness, and sore back. Symptoms of severe back pain include intense pain, infection/fever, constant pain, weak legs, and poor bowel/bladder control.
  • You are at a higher risk of contracting back pain if you are around 30/40 years or older. Obesity, strenuous physical activity, smoking, poor posture, stress, poor genetics, or being a woman are also risk factors.
  • Treatments for back pain include medical approaches (painkillers, physical therapy, nerve blocks, surgery, etc.), alternative therapies (acupuncture, massage therapy, yoga, tai chi, etc.), and natural remedies (heat and cold therapy, exercise, herbs and supplements, etc.).

what is back pain

"Back pain" - a phenomenon that we have all experienced at one time or another. Growing up, we often heard our elders complain about the "darned pain in my back!" It could even be where many of us first became aware of such a thing!

As a grown-up, back pain is no longer something we hear about but something we experience first-hand. To say it's like a rash that just won't go away would be an understatement. It lingers, hurts, leaves, and returns (without even announcing itself!) for its own amusement and our detriment.

What is back pain?

Back pain is an ailment in which mild or sharp pain is felt in the back, particularly in the lower back. It can be caused by many things, such as muscle strain, poor posture, or an injury. Underlying medical conditions, like arthritis or herniated discs, can also lead to sharp pain in the back.

In general, there are two types of back pain: acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term). Muscle pain, stiffness, tenderness, and leg pain are all possible symptoms of back pain.

Physical therapy, pain control, and lifestyle modifications are frequently used to treat back pain. In many cases, this condition can be treated with home remedies like rest, over-the-counter pain medications, and cold or hot packs.

However, in some cases, back pain can be a symptom of a more serious condition and may need medical attention. This is especially true if the pain is severe, causing significant disabilities.

The different types of back pain

We can divide back pain into three types based on severity, location, and area of distribution.

  1. Based on severity

Acute back pain: This kind of pain is sudden and intense, and it is typically brought on by a strain or sprain. In most cases, with the right care, acute back pain gets better within a few days or weeks.

Subacute back pain: This kind of pain lasts longer—usually between 4 and 12 weeks—and is less intense than acute pain. An injury or muscle strain that has not fully healed is frequently the cause of acute back pain.

Chronic back pain: This kind of pain can be brought on by a number of serious underlying conditions and lasts for 12 weeks or longer. Chronic back pain is difficult to treat and can disrupt your daily activities.

  1. Based on location

Neck pain (cervical pain): Pain that occurs in the neck area and can radiate to the shoulders and arms.

Upper back pain (thoracic pain): Pain that occurs in the upper back, between the neck and the lower back.

Lower back pain (lumbar pain): Pain that occurs in the lower back, which is the most common type of back pain.

Coccydynia (tailbone pain): Pain that occurs at the base of the spine, near the tailbone.

  1. Based on the area of distribution

Axial back pain: Back pain that is confined to a particular area, usually in the lower back. The severity can vary, and it's frequently described as sharp or dull. Axial back pain is usually caused by structural issues in the spinal column.

Radicular back pain: Piercing pain that spreads from the lower back to other areas, such as the legs or feet. Also known as sciatica, it is brought on by compression or irritability of the spinal nerves.

Referred back pain: A dull, aching pain that originates elsewhere in the body but is felt in the back. Referred back pain, for example, may be caused by a kidney stone or appendicitis. It usually starts in the lower back and may spread to the thighs and buttocks.

Understanding the causes of back pain

causes of back pain

Many of our daily activities, when performed incorrectly, become the primary causes of back pain. Here are some of the most common causes of this condition that you may be able to identify in your own daily life:

  • Poor posture

Long periods of sitting or standing in an improperly aligned position can put strain on the back. This is usually noticeable in people who spend all day on computers or mobile phones. Many of us hunch over to perform these tasks without even realizing it.

  • Injury

Accidents or falls can result in back injuries, such as fractures or sprains. Small injuries tend to result in only acute back pain, while severe injuries can result in chronic back pain.

  • Muscle overuse

Repetitive motions, prolonged posture, etc., can strain your soft tissues like muscles. This may even lead to chronic pain and discomfort in the long run.

  • Degenerative conditions

Back pain can be caused by degenerative conditions such as osteoarthritis, spinal stenosis, and herniated discs. These issues are usually brought on by wear and tear on the spine as we age. They cause the spinal structures to degenerate and weaken over time.

  • Sciatica

Sciatica is a condition that causes radiating pain in the lower back and legs. It is frequently caused by a herniated disc or a bone spur in the spine, which puts pressure on the sciatic nerve. Sciatica pain may often be accompanied by other symptoms, such as numbness and tingling, in the affected leg.

  • Muscle strains or spasms

Muscle strains/spasms, which tend to result from muscle overuse and bad posture, can oftentimes lead to back pain. Spasms are sudden muscle contractions. Strains happen when the muscle fibers are stretched or torn.

  • Stress

Stress can contribute to back pain by causing muscle tension. Furthermore, chronic stress can alter your posture and create tension headaches, which worsen neck and back pain.

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Recognizing the symptoms of back pain

Identifying the symptoms of back pain will allow you to determine how severe your condition is. Some common symptoms of back pain include:

  • Pain in the back that is aching or dull
  • Tightness or spasms of the muscles
  • A stiff back, especially in the mornings
  • Affected area is tender or sore to touch
  • Bending or twisting is difficult due to a limited range of motion

Most of the above symptoms are the result of non-severe back pain, which is mild to moderate in terms of pain level. Chronic low back pain is often accompanied by the following symptoms:

  • Shooting, sharp, or intense back pain
  • Extreme pain when standing or walking
  • Legs or feet feeling numb, tingly, or weak
  • Inability to control bladder or bowel movements
  • Infection or fever
  • Pain that worsens at night
  • Continual pain that does not go away with rest or pain relievers

Chronic back pain is likely to cause intense pain that significantly affects your daily life. It is imperative that you seek prompt medical attention in this case.

Risk factors for back pain

A risk factor is a personal characteristic that may increase the likelihood of you developing back pain. In some cases, these risk factors are determined by your lifestyle. In others, they are determined by your luck. Age is one of the biggest risk factors for back pain.

Remember how we mentioned elders complaining about back pain? It is very likely that their age contributed to their suffering. As people get older, degenerative conditions may make them more prone to back pain. Obesity, physical activity, smoking, poor posture, stress, and genetics are some other common risk factors.

Obesity being a risk factor is logical, as carrying excess weight stresses the back. The same is true of poor posture and stress, both of which are taxing on the back. "But what makes smoking and physical activity riskier for back pain?" you might wonder.

Smoking reduces blood flow to the spine and other parts of the body, hindering oxygen and nutrient delivery. Eventually, this results in degeneration, inflammation, and pain. Physically demanding activities can also be too much to handle for the bodies of some individuals, leaving them with backache.

Genetics is a risk factor because it affects spine function and structure. When the genes aren't favorable, it can lead to conditions such as scoliosis and disc degeneration. Some genetic variations may even increase back pain risk in response to environmental or lifestyle factors.

A study conducted in 2016 also mentions women being more at risk of developing back pain than men, owing mostly to their hormonal factors. Pregnancy is another factor that can induce back pain in women.

When should you seek medical attention for back pain?

Back pain caused by minor injuries and accidents can often be relieved by resting and taking pain relievers.

when should you seek medical attention for back pain

Medical attention should be sought immediately if:

  • The pain is severe, sharp, or intense and has been worsening.
  • The pain is accompanied by other symptoms, such as fever, weakness, numbness, etc.
  • The pain persists for more than a few days despite rest and pain relievers.
  • The pain is affecting your ability to perform daily activities, such as work, exercise, or sleep.
  • The pain is preventing you from sleeping. Chronic sleep deprivation can worsen pain and negatively impact overall health.

Erring on the side of caution and seeking medical help is always best for worsening back pain.

Diagnosis of back pain

When a doctor diagnoses back pain, he/she asks you questions about your medical history and back pain symptoms. This is then followed by a physical examination (if needed). In some cases, X-rays or MRIs may be ordered by your doctor to diagnose the cause of your pain.

Typically, back pain is diagnosed by a medical evaluation that includes the following:

  • Physical Exam: Assessing muscle strength, range of motion, and reflexes is part of the physical exam.
  • Review of Symptoms: The healthcare provider will ask the patient to describe the symptoms of their pain. This helps them understand factors like location, duration, and severity of the pain.
  • Imaging Tests: An X-ray, CT scan, or MRI can reveal any underlying conditions, such as broken bones, that may be causing the pain in the back.
  • Other Tests: A healthcare provider may order further tests, such as a nerve conduction study, to diagnose pain.
  • Medical History: Medical history will be taken to identify any previous injuries, surgeries, or conditions that may be contributing to pain.

An accurate diagnosis allows the healthcare provider to prescribe an effective treatment plan.

Medical approaches to treating back pain

Several medical approaches are available to treat mild and severe back pain. Some of these are quite tame, while others are much more involved. A back pain patient's treatment will primarily depend on the cause and severity of the pain. If you're struggling with back pain, always seek the advice of a medical professional.

Back pain sufferers typically take the following paths as medical approaches:

  1. Medications

Pain relievers such as paracetamol, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen can relieve mild to moderate pain. For severe pain, prescription pain medications, muscle relaxants, or anti-inflammatory medications are used.

  1. Physical Therapy

Manual therapy and exercise can help strengthen your back and abdominal muscles. In some cases, this can significantly reduce pain and improve posture.

  1. Epidural Steroid Injections

Epidural steroid injections reduce inflammation in the back, thereby relieving pain.

  1. Nerve Blocks

Nerve blocks relieve pain by numbing specific nerves that are causing it.

  1. Spinal Cord Stimulation

This procedure involves implanting a small device in the back. It then sends electrical impulses to the spinal cord, reducing pain.

  1. Surgery

In some extreme cases, surgery may be necessary to treat severe or persistent back pain. Laminectomy, discectomy, and spinal fusion are common surgical procedures for back pain.

Alternative therapies for relieving back pain

There are a number of alternatives to traditional medical treatment. These include acupuncture, massage therapy, yoga, tai chi, and similar activities.

Acupuncture - This treatment involves inserting thin needles into specific points on the body. It helps relieve pain and improve circulation.

acupuncture for back pain

Massage Therapy - A nice, relaxing massage can improve blood circulation and relieve muscle tension.

Chiropractic Care - A chiropractor can help realign the spine and reduce nerve pressure.

Yoga - Your back muscles can be stretched and strengthened with certain yoga poses.

Tai Chi - This low-impact exercise can improve balance, flexibility, and circulation.

Mind-Body Techniques - Deep breathing, meditation, and mindfulness can relieve stress and improve relaxation.

Not everyone responds well to alternative therapies. Consult your healthcare provider before attempting any alternative therapy.

Natural remedies for back pain

Natural remedies are affordable, convenient, and effective in many cases of back pain. The following natural remedies may help relieve back pain:

  1. Heat and Cold Therapy: Applying heat or cold to the affected area may help relieve pain and reduce inflammation.
  2. Exercise: Gentle exercises such as walking, swimming, and yoga enhance circulation, stretch the back, and strengthen it.
  3. Herbs and Supplements: Turmeric, ginger, and willow bark are anti-inflammatory substances that may help relieve back pain.
  4. Hydration: Maintaining a healthy level of hydration can reduce inflammation and back pain risk.
  5. Healthy Diet: Eating a balanced diet that includes anti-inflammatory foods can reduce back pain risk and help you maintain a healthy weight.

As with alternative therapies, natural remedies may not be appropriate for everyone. Always exercise them as directed by your healthcare provider.

Your mattress can be essential in back pain relief

Mattresses have the ability to greatly improve your back pain or make the pain worse. A mattress that offers the right amount of comfort and support can ease back strain and enhance spinal alignment.

best mattress for back pain

Choose a mattress that is supportive of your spine while also being comfortable enough to relieve pressure points. A medium-firm latex, hybrid, or innerspring mattress is often recommended for people suffering from back pain. They can provide a good balance of support and comfort.

You should also consider your preferred sleeping position. For instance, if you prefer to sleep on your back or stomach, you'll need a firmer mattress to support your spine. But, if you prefer to sleep on your side, a softer mattress that lessens the pressure on the hips and shoulders can be more beneficial.

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What are the 3 main causes of back pain?

The three main causes of back pain are -

  1. Mechanical issues like muscle strains and herniated discs
  2. Accidents and injuries like fractures and sprains
  3. Underlying medical conditions like scoliosis, spinal stenosis, and arthritis

Mechanical issues are the most common causes of back pain. They can be brought on by bad posture, muscle overuse, or muscle imbalances. Accidents, falls, and sudden movements can result in injuries and trauma. Structural abnormalities in the spine or degenerative diseases can cause underlying medical conditions.

How do I know if my back pain is serious?

It can be challenging to determine the severity of your back pain. But there are some indicators that may point to a more serious underlying condition, such as -

-- persistent pain that does not go away with rest or over-the-counter pain relievers

-- numbness or weakness in the legs

-- loss of bladder or bowel control

-- fever or other infection-related symptoms

-- recent back trauma or injury

What are the 3 categories of back pain?

Generally speaking, there are three types of back pain: acute, subacute, and chronic. Back pain that manifests suddenly and lasts only a few weeks or less is referred to as acute back pain. Back pain that is subacute usually lasts six to twelve weeks and may be caused by a lingering injury. Chronic back pain can be brought on by an ongoing condition, an injury, or degeneration. They last longer than twelve weeks.

How can I treat my back pain?

The cause and degree of the pain will determine the best course of treatment for back pain. Pain relievers, physical therapy, exercise, and massage can all help manage this condition. Complementary therapies like acupuncture and chiropractic care are also beneficial. More severe cases of back pain may require prescription medications or surgery.

Self-management of back pain begins with good posture, a supportive mattress, and reducing stress. To effectively manage back pain and promote healing, a combination of different treatments may be required at times.

How to sleep with back pain?

When sleeping with back pain, it is essential to adopt a position that reduces pressure on the back and supports the natural curve of the spine. Some recommendations for sleeping with back pain include -

  • Sleeping on your side with a pillow between your knees
  • Sleeping on your back with a pillow under your knees
  • Using a body pillow to support the spine

To ensure proper support and comfort while sleeping, invest in high-quality pillows and mattresses.

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Disclaimer: What is said in this article has been referenced from multiple sources and is intended only for educational and informational purposes. Please note that no content in this article is a substitute for professional advice from a qualified doctor or healthcare provider. Always consult an experienced doctor with any concerns you may have regarding a health condition or treatment, and never disregard any medical suggestions or delay in seeking treatment because of something you read here.