Back Pain

Eighty percent of all Americans will experience back pain in their lifetime. Most of the time, this is self-limiting. One or more of the following factors can cause back problems:

  • Poor posture (the way you stand or sit)
  • Poor lifting techniques
  • Sedentary (non-active) lifestyle
  • Emotional stress
  • Obesity
  • Injury or trauma to the back


Common types of back problems

While the factors above often bring out back pain symptoms, the following conditions are among the most common causes of back pain.

Muscle and ligament strain

Muscle problems may occur when weak abdominal and back muscles cannot support your spine adequately. This might happen because of overwork, improper lifting or bending, falling, or poor posture while standing or sitting.

Treatments for acute muscle strain that may be prescribed by your physician include bed rest, aspirin, and/or muscle relaxers. Muscle strain of a more chronic nature may be treated with physical therapy, massage, heat and/or a heated, therapeutic pool.

Treatment of both short and long term back problems may involve strengthening and protecting the muscles through special exercise, along with maintaining correct posture.

Disc problems

As you grow older, spinal discs go through structural changes, which cause them to lose flexibility, become narrower, and dry out. Because of these changes, disc problems are most commonly found in the 18 to 38 age group. For example, during childhood and young adulthood, discs have the consistency of milk. At about age 30, the discs begin to take the consistency of yogurt. By the time a person is between 40 and 50 years old, the discs can be compared to shredded pineapple. Beyond age 50, the discs often calcify, making them more brittle. At that time, stiffness and pain sometimes occur.

A herniated disc, also called a slipped disc, is a common problem. With a herniated disc, the outer disc fibers may tear or crack. The soft center will then flow through these tears and create a blister-like bulge. The disc may press against spinal nerves and cause pain or it may produce a chemical reaction that leads to inflammation. The area of the pain depends of where the disc tear is. For example, a disc herniation in the lower lumbar region may produce sciatica or pain down the leg as well as lower back pain.

Treatment of a herniated disc may include bed rest, anti-inflammatories, physical therapy, manual medicine, epidural corticosteroid injections, or surgery.

Osteoarthritis

As mentioned before, aging causes the disc to dry out and narrow. The discs become smaller, forcing the vertebrae closer together. This adds more stress to the vertebrae and produces instability. The body will try to correct this by increasing the surface area of the vertebrae. Ridges of bone are formed along the upper and lower vertebral rims. These ridges are called bone spurs or osteophytes. The spurs can press against nerves and may cause pain, numbness, muscular weakness, or stiffness.

A physician may suggest aspirin, heat, physical therapy and/or exercise to relieve the pain. Learn more.

Osteoporosis

This condition is marked by the gradual thinning of bones, which increases the risk of spontaneous fractures (breaks) in the spine. Wrists and hips may also be prone to fractures. Other symptoms may include a gradual decrease in a person’s height and rounding of the shoulders. Osteoporosis occurs most commonly in older people and is often found in women following menopause.

Osteoporosis is usually treated with medication to increase a person’s bone density and prevent fractures, physical therapy, and low impact aerobic exercises such as walking and weight lifting. Learn more.

For more information about back pain, download our PDF brochure on back pain or browse Dr. Kahan's lectures in our patient resources area.