According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), back pain is currently one of the four most common types of chronic (recurring) pain people struggle with today. In fact, if you are suffering from back pain, you are definitely not alone! An estimated 31 million Americans have experienced lower back pain and up to 80 percent will have at least one bout of back pain in their lifetime.
Since back pain is so widespread and debilitating, it is wise to learn as much as you can about what causes back pain, risk factors for developing back pain, various treatments and preventative strategies, including lifestyle changes.
Understanding Your Back
The back itself is one of the most complex body systems. What doctors call “the human back” is actually a remarkable collection of bones, muscles, ligaments, joints and tissues. Interspersed within the mechanical workings of the back are blood vessels, discs, cerebrospinal fluid and nerves.
Any single element can become compromised, at which point it will affect the surrounding elements as well. For example, a strained muscle may cause surrounding muscles and ligaments to overcompensate, until the original site of the pain begins to radiate outward through the entire affected region of the back.
Because the back is such a delicate system and yet so essential to nearly every part of daily life, it is not surprising back pain is also a common part of everyday life for many people!
Different Types of Back Pain
There are three major types of back pain: chronic, acute and neuropathic. The most common symptoms of back pain may be present in all three types of back pain. It is duration rather than symptoms that sets each apart.
- If your back pain has persisted for 6 months or longer, you likely have chronic back pain.
- If your back pain has persisted for less than 6 months, you likely have acute back pain.
- The word “neuro” translates to mean “nerve.” This type of pain is generated when nerves continue to send pain messages to the brain. It is a more recent field of scientific research and study and so it is less well understood than other types of back pain.
How Does Back Pain Begin?
Back pain can arise from a nearly uncountable menu of triggers, including mechanical and nerve-related causes. While it is impossible to list out every single reason why back pain might arise, there are certain known triggers that are more common.
You may recognize your own cause of back pain in this list:
- Sprains, strains, spasms, overuse or over-stretching.
- Too-heavy lifting or improper lifting.
- Disc problems, including deterioration, compression and rupture.
- Spinal deformities, including scoliosis and other curvatures.
- Pregnancy, especially in the last trimester as the pelvis expands.
- Kidney issues, including infections and kidney stones.
- Endometriosis (an overgrowth of uterine lining).
- Blood clots.
- Osteopenia or osteoporosis (bone deterioration).
- Disease of the vertebrae such as Spondylolisthesis.
- Tumors or cancer.
What Can Be Done to Treat Back Pain?
The type of back pain determines the type of treatment prescribed. As such, it is very important to do your best to get an accurate diagnosis for your particular type of back pain so the treatment can be matched to the cause.
For example, now that doctors have become aware that chronic back pain can exist on its own apart from another underlying issue, the treatment options for chronic back pain have changed and expanded.
There are several categories of treatments that may be prescribed to ease back pain. These categories include medication, physical therapy, surgery, alternative treatments and lifestyle modifications.
The types of medications prescribed to reduce your back pain will depend on the type of diagnosis you receive. Medication-based treatment tends to start with the mildest available medications, such as over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers. Examples might include ibuprofen, naproxen, aspirin or acetaminophen.
If these medicines do not decrease your back pain, you may receive a prescription for NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs). If this still doesn’t bring relief, you may be prescribed a course of muscle relaxants, antidepressants, narcotic drugs, steroid or numbing injections or topical pain medications.
Often, physical therapy is necessary in order to successfully rehabilitate the injured area in your back without putting the healthy systems surrounding it at risk of injury. Physical therapy will teach you to bend, stretch and move with more ergonomic awareness as you strengthen your core muscle groups.
Once the original cause of your back pain has been resolved, your doctor may also recommend that you do certain exercises on an ongoing basis to keep your back strong and healthy.
Surgery is not a common remedy for back pain, but it may be effective if there is unresolved compression in the nerve centers or in the discs between the vertebrae. Surgery can also be effective if there are issues with the structure of the back, such as a too-narrow spine.
Alternative treatments include acupuncture, chiropractic, massage, yoga and bio/neurofeedback for pain management. Combining alternative treatments with physical therapy and short-term medication is often effective in relieving back pain.
Lifestyle modifications are no longer seen as just an aid to preventing back pain. Some types of back pain can be relieved quite effectively, for example, with weight reduction, education on proper lifting, a change to different shoes, and workstation modifications that are more ergonomic.
Can Back Pain Be Prevented?
With strong adherence to preventative lifestyle modifications, including a healthy diet, maintenance of a healthy weight, regular exercise, plenty of rest, good hydration, abstinence from smoking and excessive drinking and attention to ergonomic work and life habits, it is possible to stave off some of the major causes of back pain.