Pain is common, and back pain is one of the most common types of pain. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta report that the average American can expect to have at least one episode of back pain in his or her life time. Often back pain is caused by a sprain or spasm and goes away in a matter of days or weeks. But some people face persistent back pain.
The back is a miracle of engineering. It helps us to stand upright but also gives us the flexibility to bend and twist. It protects the spinal cord and is able to withstand the tremendous forces of walking, running, stepping, and lying down.
The back bone consists of a stack of 24 individual bones called vertebrae that rest one on top of the other. If you've ever studied anatomy, you know that these vertebrae are of different shapes at different points along the back. The vertebrae around the neck area (the "cervical spine" area where the vertebrae are typically labeled C1, C2, and so on) are much smaller than the vertebrae of the lumbar or lower back region. The vertebrae around the chest or thoracic cavity have the least flexibility and are anchored or stabilized by the ribs. At the end of the vertebral column is the sacrum and the tailbone, which do not look like the other vertebrae. In fact, the sacrum and the tailbone consist of several bones fused together.
Working together with the vertebral column are muscles, tendons, ligaments, and nerves. Considering the complexity of the system, it is no wonder that the back can be vulnerable to certain types of injury.
Back pain may seem simple, but it is actually exceedingly complex. There are many causes of back pain and, as such, not all back pain will respond to the same treatment. People with back pain must consult with a physician in order to get the right diagnosis, that is, to learn the cause of the problem.
Some back pain may be caused by a muscle sprain or spasm. Characteristics of this type of back pain include a sudden onset and the fact that it usually diminishes and eventually goes away over time, typically in a few days or weeks.
Some other things that can produce back pain include arthritis, osteoporosis, and sciatica. Arthritis is a degenerative disease meaning it causes the joints to wear out. Osteoporosis is a condition where the bones get thin, porous, brittle, and susceptible to injury including fracture. Sciatica is a condition where the sciatic nerve becomes inflamed. The sciatic nerves run from the back on each side over the buttock and down the leg.
Back pain can also be caused by a skeletal abnormality, that is, being born with a vertebral column that has some kind of curve or malformation that produces pain. Scoliosis, for example, is a condition where the spine curves to one side.
In order to absorb the shock of walking, running, stepping, and moving around, the vertebrae are cushioned with discs between them. These discs are made of a soft material that can be damaged. If the disc ruptures or bulges out of place, it can put pressure on a nerve and cause pain. Not every ruptured or herniated disc causes pain and the pain caused from such a problem varies widely among patients. It may be mild or it may be severe.
There are many other conditions that can cause back pain. If your back is injured in some way, you need medical care so that the injury can heal properly. On the other hand, if the back pain you are suffering is caused by a defect in the spine or a permanent degenerative disease, you will have to deal with these problems over the long term.
Pain management tactics that have worked with some back pain patients include an ice pack on the affected area or a heating pad, warm showers, topical pain relievers, and massage. Many people find relief for back pain by seeing a chiropractor. When you are well enough, you may benefit from exercises designed to help strengthen the muscles that support the back.
There are situations where you may need to take a pain reliever for back pain. This is a good topic to discuss with your physician. While over-the-counter pain relievers can provide relief, these are real drugs that must be taken with care. Read the instructions and do not take more than you should or take them for a long period of time. If you need long-term pain relief, you must discuss this with your physician to find the best solution for you.
Back pain is not uncommon. But it can be complex, and you need to find out all you can about your particular type of back pain in order to get the most appropriate care.