Back pain causes, treatments and home remedies
By Katherine Solem
Your backbone is comprised of 33 small vertebrae that start right below the skull and descend all the way to the pelvis. These bones help structure your torso and protect the spinal cord from injury. Injury to these bones and the muscles surrounding them occur often and can happen for a number of different reasons, making back pain a condition of major concern in the U.S. About 80 percent of Americans will experience low back pain at some point in their lives, resulting in $50 billion of spending each year on back pain treatment. Here are some of the common back pain causes and back pain treatments.
Back Pain Causes
- Strains: A back strain is the most common form of back injury. A strain occurs when you injure one or more of the muscles that move the spine. Strains often result from heavy lifting or quick, awkward movements.
- Fracture: Vertebrae can become fractured by direct force to the spine or by compression from a fall on the buttocks or head.
- Spondylolisthesis: This is a common form of back injury. Strenuous activities or defects can cause vertebrae to slip forwards, backwards or over other vertebrae, resulting in pain.
- Cervical Radiculopathy: If nerve roots near the cervical vertebrae (the seven vertebrae directly below the skull) are compressed, pain and loss of sensation in upper extremities may occur.
- Ruptured (herniated) discs: Discs act as pillow-like cushions between each vertebra that absorb shock, protecting the back, nerves and brain from damage. When the spine becomes more rigid with age, these discs may slip out of place and pinch a nerve.
- Invertebral disc degeneration: The discs between the vertebrae of the spine may break down with age. As this happens, the discs lose cushioning ability, leading to pain when the back is put under stress.
- Arthritis:Arthritis - pain in the joints - can occur in the facet joints along the spine that connect each vertebra. When these facet joints become arthritic, movement is painful.
- Osteoarthritis: known as the "wear and tear" arthritis, is the degeneration of cartilage in knees. Osteoarthritis is the most common form of disability in the U.S., with 9 million diagnoses in 2005.
- Rheumatoid Arthritis: An autoimmune disease that causes inflammation in joints.
- Fibromyalgia Syndrome: Muscles and joints throughout the body ache. These physically painful symptoms are accompanied by anxiety, depression, fatigue and a decreased pain threshold.
- Spinal Stenosis: The spine narrows at one of three places: the space at the center of the spine, the canals where nerves branch out from the spine or the space between vertebrae. This narrowing compresses the spinal cord and nerves, causing pain.
- Scoliosis:Scoliosis is diagnosed when the spine has an abnormal, lateral (from side-to-side) curvature instead of being straight.
- Congenital scoliosis: A curved spine is present at birth.
- Neuromuscular scoliosis: Abnormal muscles or nerves cause the scoliosis.
- Degenerative scoliosis:Results from trauma or injury to the spine, back surgery or osteoporosis.
- Idiopathic scoliosis: The most common cause of scoliosis. Its cause is unknown, but it is likely inherited.
- Sciatia: A herniated disc in the lower back compresses the sciatic nerve, causing a stinging pain that travels through the buttocks and into the leg.
- Osteoporosis: Bones become thin, brittle and weak, making fractures in the spine's vertebrae more likely.
Symptoms Associated with Back Pain
- Muscle ache
- Shooting or stabbing pain
- Pain that radiates down your leg
- Impeded flexibility or limited range of motion of back
- Inability to stand straight
Back Pain Risk Factors
- Old Age: People middle-aged or older are far more likely to experience back pain.
- Family history of back pain: Having a close relative with back pain makes it more likely that you will experience back pain at some point in life because you may be at increased risk for the condition or disease which caused their back pain.
- Having a previous back injury: Previous back injuries increase the likelihood of a back injury in the future.
- Sedentary work: Your back may become weak and less able to handle normal or strenuous activities.
- A physically challenging job: Jobs requiring heavy lifting, awkward twisting or repetitive motions may increase the likelihood of back pain.
- Excess weight: Being overweight can put additional strain on your back.
- Smoking: Smokers are more likely to have back pain than non-smokers.
- Stress, anxiety and depression: These emotional conditions play a major role in low back pain.
Back Pain Treatments
- Antidepressants: Cymbalta, an antidepressant medication, was approved by the FDA in 2004 for treatment of chronic back pain.
- Physical therapy: Strengthening both the abdominal muscles and muscles surrounding the spine through physical therapy will make the back stronger, more stable and less prone to injury.
- Cortisone injection: This anti-inflammatory medication is injected into the space around the spinal cord. Pain relief will last a couple months.
- Chiropractor: Chiropractors can make adjustments to the spine that are effective for acute low-back pain. Some research suggests that early chiropractic adjustments for acute back pain may prevent chronic back pain.
- Acupuncture: May result in moderate or complete back pain relief.
- Massage: Massage therapy may help ease muscle tension in the back.
- Surgery:Because of its unpredictable nature, back surgery is rarely performed. Numerous complications arise from back surgery that the term failed back surgery syndrome (FBSS) is applied to thousands of people that experience problems post-back surgery. Common back surgeries include:
- Fusion: Two vertebrae are joined together by a bone graft to reduce painful movement.
- Partial removal of a vertebra: Surgeons can remove small sections of vertebrae that are pinching the spinal cord.
- Partial removal of disk: Surgeons can remove portions of discs that are pinching a nerve.
- Rest: Resting your back is a good way to get relief from minor injuries and strains.
- Weight-bearing exercise: Strengthening your back muscles will help you avoid back pain caused by physical stress and weakness.
- Pilates and yoga: These forms of movement force you to move your body in a coordinated, flexible manner. They may diminish stress on the back while improving strength and balance.
- Anti-inflammatory drugs: Aspirin, Advil and Tylenol are examples of over-the-counter medications that may relieve back pain. Stronger medications can be prescribed by a doctor if necessary.
Back Pain Exercises
Although exercise is important to help strengthen your muscles and relieve back pain it is important to not overdo it! Some exercises can actually hurt your back more. Start slow and build up the amount of exercise you do over time. Here are some back pain exercises that can build up your back muscles so you are less susceptible to injury and back pain stretches that can help relieve back pain.
- Bridges: Lie on your back with both knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Tighten your gluteal and abdominal muscles and raise your hips to from a straight line from your shoulders to your knees. Try to hold this position for 10 seconds and then slowly lower. Repeat 10 times.
- Back Stretches:
- Knee to chest stretch: Lie on your back with both knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Bend one leg up toward your body and grasp your knee with both of your arms and pull it in towards your chest and hold for 10 seconds. Repeat this motion with your other leg. Now, bring both legs up toward your torso and use your arms to pull both knees towards your chest and hold for 10 seconds.
- Lower back rotational stretch: Lie flat on your back with both knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Slowly move your knees to one side while keeping your shoulders flat on the ground and hold for 10 seconds. Return to your starting position and move your knees toward the opposite side and hold for 10 seconds.
- Cat Stretch: Standing on your hands and knees, let your back arch as your abdominal area moves towards the floor. Slowly, lift the abdominal area back up and bring your back to the neutral, flat position. Now, slowly continue to pull the abdominal area back up past neutral to a slightly more hunched position. Return to neutral and repeat the entire pattern 5 times.
- Shoulder blade squeeze: Sit on a chair with your back straight. Keep your chin tucked in and keep your chest high as you pull your shoulder blades together behind your back. Hold this position for 5 seconds and relax.
Katherine Solem is a health writer and editor living in San Francisco.
Published: July 5, 2011