Back Pain Is Such a Pain

Back Pain Is Such a Pain

Back Pain Is Such a Pain

Its happens to many of us. We move or lift something the wrong way and our back protests. Sometimes it’s just a brief twinge of pain — a reminder to move more carefully. Other times, the pain may be intense and last a long time.

The search for relief can be frustrating and sometimes unusual. We lie on hard surfaces. We think of elaborate ways to move from our couch to the kitchen, bedroom or bathroom. Crawling on all fours isn’t always out of the question. And many of us are no stranger to curious looks from our pets wondering what on earth we’re doing on the floor.

Back pain is so common that eight out of 10 people leaving site icon experience it at some point in their lives. You may be tempted to ignore it if you can still function. Yet, our backs deserve more respect than that. They are our body’s “load bearing wall” and the “broadband” of our nervous system. To protect this vital part of your body, it’s good to know about the types and causes of back pain.

Mechanical Back Pain

Have you ever slept wrong? Taken a nasty tumble? Moved or lifted something in an awkward way? Then you may have experienced mechanical back pain. Something in your back is either too tight, out of place — or both.

Types of mechanical back pain include:

  • Ruptured or Herniated Disk — Think of the disks between your vertebrae as jelly-filled sacs. Imagine they burst and leak. This is one of the issues that sometimes requires surgery.
  • Intervertebral Disk Degeneration — This mouthful really boils down to a worn-out pad between your two vertebrae. Think of moving parts in a machine that have pads or grease between them to protect each part when they come close to touching. When the pad or oil breaks down, the parts start knocking against each other. Your vertebrae are like the machine parts. When a disk starts to wear down, you get more stress on your spine.
  • Muscle Spasms — Muscle spasms, also called muscle cramps, are painful contractions and tightening of your muscles. They are common and unpredictable. Experts don’t really know why they happen, but there are a lot of theories. Muscle fatigue, not enough stretching, exercising in the heat, stress and dehydration are some of the reasons cited.
  • Muscle Tension — Sometimes muscles tense up to a point that makes the back ache.  It can happen after you’ve been in one position for a long time (a marathon day at work or really long car ride). Repetitive motions like raking leaves or shoveling snow can also trigger them. Sometimes back muscles share that tension with your neck. Next thing you know, you have a headache, too.

Even if you think you know why your back hurts, call your doctor if the pain is severe or lasts longer than three days. You may need an exam.  Your doctor may recommend special exercises, decide you need a shot or suggest you wear special shoes or shoe inserts.

Acute or Chronic?

If back pain comes on suddenly and doesn’t last longer than six weeks, it’s acute. Acute back pain is the most common type. It may happen after a fall or after you lift something heavy. It often goes away on its own. You may take over-the-counter pain or anti-inflammatory medication to help you through it, but the key to managing acute back pain is to keep moving. Specific exercises are not recommended for acute back pain. Regular day-to-day movement helps reduce stiffness and pain, and helps you get back to normal sooner. Usually, acute back pain does not require surgery.

Chronic back pain is less common than acute pain. Chronic back pain may come on suddenly or gradually, but it hangs around for at least three months. Treatments for chronic back pain are either non-surgical or surgical. Non-surgical treatments are usually the first option, and fix the problem most of the time.

Medical Back Pain

In rare cases, back pain turns out to be the result of something medical rather than mechanical. Back pain can happen with kidney stones or a kidney infection, various forms of arthritis, and a number of other conditions. The important thing to know is when to get help.

It’s time to see your doctor if you experience back pain along with any of these  symptoms:

  • Trouble urinating
  • Weakness
  • Numbness in your legs
  • Fever
  • Weight loss when not on a diet
  • Numbness or tingling

Also see your doctor if severe back pain does not improve with rest or is the result of a fall or other injury.

Can We Prevent Back Pain?

The answer is as broad as the many causes of back pain. In general, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight and a healthy diet can help prevent back pain.

Sources: Back Pain, leaving site icon MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2023; Back Pain, leaving site icon National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, 2023

Originally published 1/14/2016; Revised 2021, 2023