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Back Pain (Chronic & Acute)

Back pain is a leading cause of disability worldwide and one of the most common musculoskeletal conditions that cause people to go to the doctor or miss work.  The majority of people will experience back pain at least once in their life.  Back pain can occur acutely from an injury or accident or can be chronic from poor posture or other long term mechanical stress on the back.  However it happens though, back pain can make many everyday activities painful and difficult to do. Symptoms of back pain can include aching muscles, shooting or stabbing pain, pain that radiates down the leg or legs, and/or limited flexibility and decreased range of motion of the back.

Some cases of acute back pain gradually improve with home treatment and self-care.  Proper body mechanics can often heal acute back pain within a few weeks and keep it functional for the long haul.  Common causes of acute back pain include a muscle or ligament strain from repeated heavy lifting or a sudden awkward movement which may strain back muscles and spinal ligaments.  Bulging or ruptured disks can also cause acute back pain.  Vertebral disks act as cushions between the bones (vertebrae) in your spine.  When the soft material inside a disk bulge or rupture from pressure it can press on a nerve. Sometimes this causes back pain, sometimes it does not.

Some chronic causes of back pain include degenerative spondylolisthesis, osteoarthritis, spinal stenosis and osteoporosis.  Changes from aging and just the general wear and tear of life can make it hard for your joints and ligaments to keep the spine in its proper position.  The vertebrae can then move more than they should, and one vertebra can slip forward on top of another.  If too much slippage occurs, the bones may begin to irritate the spinal nerves thus causing pain.  Arthritis in the spine can lead to a narrowing of the space around the spinal cord, a condition called spinal stenosis. Osteoporosis, which causes bone to become brittle, can lead to compression fractures in the vertebrae of the spine and thus cause significant back pain.

Many factors contribute to back pain.  Most of us are aware that back pain is more common as you get older, starting around age 30 or 40.  Lack of exercise can also lead to weak, unused muscles in your back making muscle strain and injury more likely.  Being overweight will also strain the muscle of the back and put undue stress on the spine.  Diseases such as arthritis and cancer can also cause back pain.  Even those with psychological issues such as depression and anxiety appear to be more likely to suffer from back pain. Smoking reduces the amount of nutrients that supply the discs in spine, making degenerative disc disease more likely.

Various treatment regimens exist for back pain but most of them center on physical therapy.  Physical therapists often use a combination of therapies to help relieve back pain.  These therapies typically include heat, ultrasound, electrical stimulation and muscle-release techniques.  Exercises and other preventative measures are taught as pain improves in order to prevent recurrence of the back pain.  Surgery in not needed by most people with back pain.  If surgery is indicated, it is usually for unrelenting pain associated with radiating leg pain or progressive muscle weakness caused by nerve compression or other structural problems, such as narrowing of the spine (spinal stenosis) or a herniated disk that hasn’t responded to other therapy.  Several alternative treatments may also ease symptoms of back pain, but be sure to discuss the benefits and risks with your doctor before starting any new alternative therapy.