Few things are more debilitating than back pain, which can affect everything from your bones and muscles to your nervous system. And according to the American Chiropractic Association, almost 80% of Americans will experience some form of back pain during their lifetime. While there are obvious cases of back pain associated with trauma or an incident where an individual’s back was injured, sometimes there’s no clear cause. With that in mind, here are nine of the most painful and prominent types of back problems you should know about.
1. Muscle strain
The most common type of back pain has to do with muscle strain and overexertion, and it can lead to significant discomfort. “Muscular back pain is characterized by an almost immediate onset, often when the athlete twists suddenly and feels a tear along the side of the spine,” Jordan D. Metzl, M.D. and Men’s Health Advisory Board member, said in an interview with The Cheat Sheet. “Acute muscular back pain is quite severe; often its sufferers are those people you see walking around bent over, resembling a human comma.”
Muscle strain can be caused by tons of things: lack of physical exercise, being overweight, or bending the wrong way. “Even triathletes who don’t fit properly on their bikes may find themselves in a position that puts excessive stress on their lower back,” Metzl said. The good news is muscle strain is almost always reversible. Metzl says treatment can include icing, taking an anti-inflammatory, and vising a massage or physical therapist.
2. Trauma to the spine
Another leading cause of back pain is trauma to the spine, which is common with patients who have been in a motor vehicle accident. “The basic component of neck or lower back injuries following a motor vehicle accident involves multiple tissue injuries,” John F. Chinnici, D.C., owner and founder of East Islip Chiropractic, told us. “Treatment typically involves addressing the various tissue entities that have been damaged, including chiropractic care with physiotherapy and manipulative treatment, physical therapy, pain management, and prescription and over-the-counter medications.”
Traumas resulting from sport injuries, particularly contact sports like football, lacrosse, or gymnastics, can lead to stress fractures in the spine, which can cause a significant amount of discomfort.
Not nearly as common as muscular back pain, arthritis results from a problem inside the spine’s bone structure. “It is characterized by a gradual onset of pain, beginning with a dull ache, that becomes progressively worse over many months,” explained Metzl. “With all causes of bone-related back pain, an X-ray and proper diagnosis is the first step towards understanding and fixing the problem.” As is the case with muscular back pain, good core muscle support can fix most of the symptoms of bone-related back pain.
4. Pinched nerve
Medically known as nerve entrapment, pinched nerves are among the most painful back conditions out there, often resulting in temporary or permanent disability. It may even require surgery.
“Pinched nerves result from herniated disks, a condition that can be a result of trauma or more typically develop over time because of aging weakness in the disc,” Chinnici explained. “A gritty, putty material in the center of the disc can break through the outer wall of the disc, approach the nerves, and impinge the nerve.” Treatments include physiotherapy, such as muscle stimulation, heat treatments, cold treatments, ultrasound, massage therapy, spinal manipulations and therapeutic exercises.
Sciatica, named for the sciatic nerve, is a condition that’s characterized by radiating or shooting pain through the back and sides of the legs. “Several causes can be the culprit, including impinged or pinched nerve or bulging disc,” Steven Mrowzinski, M.S., a New York State-licensed acupuncturist, told The Cheat Sheet. “In rare instances, it’s even possible that a tumor could be causing the pain.”
Sciatica is known to keep people awake, but Mrowzinski also points out pain that wakes you up from your sleep is a red flag for cancer. “This is a perfect example why it’s always good to check with your doctor.” In most cases, he suggests doing simple stretches and practicing good posture to help ease the pain.
This incredibly painful spinal condition is a broader term used to describe one vertebrae slipping over another. “There are a variety of reasons that you may develop a spondylolisthesis, but most commonly it is degenerative in that it occurs as a result of the degenerative process of the spine,” Dr. Grant D. Shifflett, an orthopedic spine surgeon, said in an interview with The Cheat Sheet. “Core exercises, physical therapy, and medications may help stabilize the slipping segment and give you greater longevity, but if the instability progresses surgical intervention may be required.”
7. Spinal stenosis
Spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the spinal canal, resulting in painful pressure on the spinal cord or nerve roots that has a variety of causes including deterioration, family history, injury, or an overgrowth of bone, Mrowzinski says. He recommends natural remedies, such as exercises and stretches or herbology, to provide relief. In some cases, however, patients may be able to opt for an epidural or cortisone injection to treat the pain.
8. Herniated disc
This condition occurs when material within the intervertebral discs herniates out through the hard outer covering of the disc. Shifflett said, “This, many times, occurs as the result of a traumatic event, but most often there is no specific precipitating event.” Treatment may include anti-inflammatories, muscle relaxants, physical therapy, and possibly surgery, depending on your situation.
This condition is caused by a loss of calcium from the bone and is a common cause of back pain in elderly patients. “For those with osteoporosis, even minimal stress on the back, such as everyday activities of lifting items around the house, can cause compression fractures,” said Chinnici. “The usual treatment for compression fractures involve keeping the patient comfortable over a three to six week period until the condition can stabilize.” Occasionally, with more advanced multiple compression deformities, surgical treatments may need to be considered.
Keep in mind
While not every type of back pain is preventable, a lot of issues can be avoided simply by generally taking care of yourself. WebMD points out simple things like maintaining a healthy weight and thinking carefully about what type of bag you choose to haul around your things can make a huge difference. And good posture makes a difference too, so sit up a little straighter instead of slumping over your computer.