Back pain

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at December 9, 2015
StartSymptomsBack pain

Back pain can affect anyone, at any age, even children, though it becomes more common with age. Pain, especially in the lower back, has many causes ranging from simple strain to chronic disease. Treatments for back pain are as varied as the causes themselves – and the good news is, there are many things that anyone can do to prevent back pain and relieve it when it does occur.


Definition & Facts

The broad term "back pain" covers many conditions. Though pain can occur anywhere along the spine, the lower back is most vulnerable to the stresses and conditions that generate pain. This kind of pain can take many forms, from sharp sudden pain upon movement or at rest to low-level ongoing aching.

Back pain causes severe discomfort and disrupts daily living, but is rarely life threatening unless caused by an underlying disease such as cancer. According to back pain specialists at Mayo Clinic, depending on the source of the pain, it can be treated by a range of traditional and alternative therapies.


Back pain has many causes. The most common is muscle strain caused by heavy lifting, exercise, an accident or a sudden motion that pulls the muscles in the back. Other causes include scoliosis, a condition in which the spine is slightly curved, and arthritis, which causes aching joints and bones throughout the body.

Osteoporosis, a condition that makes bones brittle and easily broken, can also cause back pain. Ruptured or bulging discs – the “cushions" between the vertebrae in the spine itself- can sometimes, but not always, cause back pain. Back pain can also be a symptom of more serious diseases such as cancer or problems with the kidneys or liver.

Lifestyles and habits can also contribute to back pain. Sitting hunched over a desk or computer can cause chronic back strain, and so can standing or walking for long periods in shoes that offer little support or force the muscles to tighten. Even being overweight can lead to back pain, as the muscles work harder to support the extra weight. Back pain that lasts less than six weeks is generally considered to be acute, and pain that continues for more than that is called chronic, but both are treatable.

When to see a doctor

In many cases, back pain improves by itself in two or three weeks with appropriate rest and self care and, if necessary, making needed lifestyle changes such as getting a new office chair with good back support. But if self-care fails to resole the problem and the pain persists beyond that, medical experts recommend seeing a doctor.

This is especially important if the back pain is accompanied by symptoms such as a fever, weight loss, problems with bowel or bladder functions, or causes weakness or numbness in the legs. People over 50 experiencing back pain for the first time should also see a doctor, as well as those with a history of alcohol abuse, since liver problems can cause back pain too.

Treatment & Therapy

Back pain can be treated as simply as resting the back and using warm compresses to ease the strain. In less serious cases, over the counter pain and anti-inflammatory medications can relieve aching o a short-term basis. If these measures fail to relieve the pain, typical medical treatments include stronger narcotic pain relievers, muscle relaxants, and injections of steroids such as cortisone.

In some cases, low doses of drugs used to treat depression can also help relieve chronic back pain. If the pain is caused by an underlying disease state such as arthritis, medications to treat the condition can help relieve the pain too. Physical therapy plays a large role in treating back pain with exercises and regimens that relax and strengthen muscles. Chiropractic care can also help relieve back pain with gentle spinal manipulations that improve alignment and reduces strain.

Alternative therapies such as yoga and tai chi are also effective in treating muscle related back pain with exercise and movements that lengthen and stretch tight muscles. Surgery can be an option for relieving back pain in some cases. If the pain is caused by a fractured vertebra or a crushed or ruptured disk, surgical intervention can repair the damage and restore stability and alignment in the back, but unless the pain is caused by trauma or disk damage, back pain is typically treated by non surgical approaches.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

Some cases of back pain, such as a sudden injury or an underlying disease such as arthritis, are not preventable. But it is possible to reduce the likelihood of a back injury or chronic back pain with preventive measures. Exercise is key to keeping the back strong and flexible, and less likely to be injured in daily activities.

Core strength training not only strengthens back muscles but also the abdominals, which leads to greater stability. Simple changes such as practicing good posture while standing and sitting can also reduce the likelihood of chronic back strain. For those who must sit for long periods, a comfortable chair that supports the back is essential. Wearing certain shoes, such as high heels or shoes without cushioning, can also contribute to back pain; so swapping those trendy heels for more supportive footwear can ease leg and back pain, too.

Since lifting heavy objects is a leading cause of back pain, lifting correctly by using the legs, not the back, can reduce the chances of a sudden back strain. Likewise, a generally health lifestyle that incorporates physical activity such as walking and low impact aerobic exercise can reduce the likelihood of a back injury, and reduce recovery time if one should occur. But anyone prone to back problems or recovering from a back strain or injury should avoid high impact aerobic activities such as running or tennis.

Back pain can strike anyone, for many reasons. But aching backs can find relief in treatments from the worlds of both conventional and alternative medicine – and preventing back pain through exercise, good posture and support are things that anyone can do.

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