Back pain can occur in any of the three major sections of the back: lumbar, thoracic and cervical spine. However, pain in the lumbar spine is oftentimes the most prevalent and can be disabling for many.
Because this is such a common affliction nowadays, a large number of the population may experience back pain at some point in their lives.
Whether it manifests itself as acute low back pain and occurs only in the short term, or if it persists for a long time, as is the case for chronic low back pain, it can cause an impairment that is significant enough to affect our day-to-day tasks.
Back pain, whether it occurs in the lower, middle or upper back, can either have an unknown cause (idiopathic), or it can occur due to physical factors such as injuries, or spinal disorders, as well as lifestyle-related factors. Some common causes that may lead to back pain include:
- Ankylosing spondylitis
- Nerve compression, or even spinal cord compression (which should be addressed as soon as possible, as it is considered a severe and serious condition)
- Heavy lifting of either gym equipment or everyday objects, such as heavy grocery bags
- Herniated disks, where the inner nucleus of one or more spinal disks slips out of its protective shell
- Spinal stenosis, which a condition where the spinal canal becomes narrower and can impinge on spinal nerve roots
- Cauda equina syndrome
- Degenerative disc disease, where the discs tend to lose so of their liquid content as we advance in age
- Poor posture, where the back is bent in an unnatural or strained way for a prolonged period of time
- Long periods of sitting down, hunched over a desk, without taking a break
- Being overweight places one at a greater risk to develop back pain because the extra weight tends to place increased strain on the back’s structure to provide support and maintain the spine upright
- Damage to the soft tissue of the back, such as the muscles, ligaments, or tendons. Some of the most common type of issues include muscle strains and sprains
How it can affect our lives
Apart from the pain that may prevent us from doing activities that require movement and physical effort (such as spending time doing the sports we love, or spending time with our families), people with back pain (especially the chronic type) are at risk of developing more serious conditions, if the main problem is left untreated.
Some issues that may arise along with the pain itself include:
- Numbness, weakness, or tingling in the limbs or extremities (which is common in spinal stenosis and sciatica sufferers, for example)
- Difficulty walking (another issue that is common for spinal stenosis sufferers)
- Stiffness either in the back, neck or shoulders
- Tense muscles
- In more severe cases, people may experience loss of bladder or bowel control
- Other symptoms
Diagnosis and treatment options to live pain-free
Although back pain is not something to worry about in the majority of cases, sometimes it can be the symptom of something more serious, which warrants medical investigation. Such issues include: osteoporosis (which can eventually lead to a compression fracture of the spine), or even spinal tumours.
In order to determine the cause and severity of the issue, the first step is to seek medical assistance from a healthcare professional (preferably a spinal specialist) who will start by performing a physical examination of the problematic area. He/she will inspect for any abnormalities that may be present, and ask relevant questions regarding the patient’s medical history.
If the results from the physical examination are not conclusive, or if there is reason for concern, the patient may be referred to have further (imaging) tests, such as a CT scan or an MRI scan.
Once the diagnosis is confirmed, the patient will receive appropriate treatment depending on the region of the back that has been affected, as well as the cause and severity of the condition, and also the patient’s preference (in some cases).
Preventing back pain is the best solution, but it may not be possible for everyone, especially those who have received a late diagnosis, after being in pain for months, years, or even decades sometimes.
When that’s the case, treatment options still work to provide pain relief for the sufferer. Some of the most common and conventional ways to address this problem include:
- Physical therapy, to re-mobilise the spine, strengthen core muscles, and restore the spine’s natural function overall, as much as possible
- Anti-inflammatory medication/painkillers to temporarily alleviate the pain
- Injections that reduce pain in the back
- Exercising to strengthen the muscles that allow the back to be held upright, without straining them
- Maintaining or getting to a healthy weight, to remove additional strain placed on the spine due to excessive weight
- Taking breaks from working at a desk, to either walk or stretch the whole body
- As a last resort, surgery may be considered as an option for people who failed to respond to more conservative forms of treatment, as well as for severe cases.
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