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Back Pain

Causes and Treatments of Back Pain

By

Updated May 16, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Low back pain in the lumbar spine.

The lumbar spine: the site of low back pain

Image © Medical Multimedia Group
The complaint of back pain is among the most common medical conditions. To begin on the positive side, patients must understand that most episodes of back pain resolve, and usually within a few weeks. Unfortunately, back pain can be among the most difficult and frustrating problems for patients and their doctors.

Understanding the cause of your back pain is the key to proper treatment. Because back pain is sometimes difficult to treat, a better understanding of the cause of your condition will assist in your recovery.

Causes of Back Pain

Lumbar Muscle Strain
Muscle strains are the most common cause of low back pain. Patients may or may not remember the initial event that triggered their muscle spasm, but the good news is that most episodes of back pain from muscle strains resolve completely within a few weeks.

Ruptured Disc
A ruptured intervertebral disc, also called a herniated disc, is another common cause of back pain. How to treat the back pain from a herniated disc depends on the particular individual and symptoms.

Discogenic Back Pain
Discogenic back pain is thought to be a cause of low back pain. Discogenic back pain is the result of damage to the intervertabral disc, but without having a disc herniation.

Spinal Stenosis
Spinal stenosis causes back pain in the aging population. As we age, the spinal canal can become constricted, due in part to arthritis and other conditions. If the spinal canal becomes too tight, back pain can be the result.

Lumbar Spine Arthritis
Arthritis most commonly affects joints such as the knees and fingers. However, arthritis can affect any joint in the body, including the small joints of the spine. Arthritis of the spine can cause back pain with movement.

Spondylolisthesis
Spondylolisthesis causes back pain because adjacent vertebra become unstable and begin to "slip." The most common cause of spondylolisthesis is due to degenerative changes causing loss of the normal stabilizing structures of the spinal column. If the spine becomes unstable enough, back pain can become a problem.

Osteoporosis
Osteoporosis can cause a number of orthopedic problems and generalized discomfort. Back pain from osteoporosis is most commonly related to compression fractures of the vertebra. Osteoporosis causes weak bones and can lead to these fractures.

When do I need to go to my doctor for back pain?
Most episodes of back pain last a few days, and have completely resolved within a few weeks. If you have new back pain, you should contact your doctor to see if you need further evaluation. There are also a few warning signs that may indicate a problem that needs immediate evaluation:

  • Your back pain persists beyond a few days
  • Your back pain awakens you at night
  • Your have difficulty controlling your bowels or bladder
  • You have a fever, chills, sweats, or other signs of infection
  • Any other unusual symptoms

Back Pain Treatments

The most frustrating aspect in treatment of back pain is that if often takes time for symptoms to resolve. Most individuals recover completely by simply avoiding stress to the back. Patients often find help from ice, heat, and medications. If the basic treatments for back pain do not relieve your symptoms, the next step is to seek medical evaluation. Depending on the symptoms and the length of the problem, your physician can properly organize a treatment schedule.

Depending on the condition that is causing your symptoms, a number of treatments may be recommended. Some options for treatment of back pain include:

  • Non-Surgical Treatment
    Non-surgical options are usually the first step in treatment of back pain conditions. Rest, ice, heat, exercises, medications, and other treatments may all be useful in relieving your symptoms.

  • Alternative Treatments
    Alternative treatments are popular and often as successful as traditional medical treatments for many types of back pain. These treatments are often safe and as effective as medicines used for treatment of back pain.

  • Spine Surgery
    Spine surgery is usually reserved for treatment of back pain that does not resolve with simple steps. However, there are some conditions where surgery may be necessary. Your doctor can help you determine when surgery may be an appropriate treatment for your condition.

Sources:

Biyani, A. Andersson, G.B. "Low Back Pain: Pathophysiology and Management J. Am. Acad. Ortho. Surg., March/April 2004; 12: 106 - 115.

Related Video
How to Do Back Stretches for Back Pain
How to Do Back Strengthening Exercises
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