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Nighttime Back Pain

Nighttime back pain is a special type of lower back pain that could indicate a serious problem with your spine. 

In the U.S., between 60% and 80% of the population experiences some form of low back pain. It's the second most common reason people see their doctor. But as debilitating as back pain can be, most instances of it are manageable, and people who get adequate rest and proper exercise often see improvement within a matter of weeks.

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Cauda Equina Syndrome Overview

Low back pain is very common. It affects millions of people. In most cases, you don't need surgery for low back pain. But in rare cases, severe back pain can be a sign of cauda equina syndrome (CES), a condition that usually requires urgent surgical treatment. People with cauda equina syndrome often are admitted to a hospital as a medical emergency. Here's what you need to know about cauda equina syndrome.

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With nighttime back pain, however, people can't get the rest they need because they can't get relief from their pain.

What Is Nighttime Back Pain?

The majority of people with back pain are able to adjust how they sleep to get relief from the pain they experience during the day. But with nighttime back pain -- also called nocturnal back pain -- the hurting doesn't stop when a person lies down, no matter what adjustments he or she makes. For some, the pain actually gets worse. And for others, the pain doesn't even start until they lie down.

A person can actually go through a day virtually pain-free. But then at night, he or she might find it nearly impossible to get a full night's sleep. In one study -- published in the journal Spine in 2005 -- 44% of people seen at a back pain clinic in the U.K. complained of pain at night. And 42% of those people said the pain was present every night. Some study participants reported being awakened as often as six times a night; the average length of continuous sleep for people with nocturnal pain was less than five hours.

What Causes Nocturnal Pain?

Just as with normal back pain, the cause of nighttime back pain isn't always clear. Among other things, back pain can be caused by any of the following:

  • Problems with the way the spine moves or other mechanical problems, the most common of which is disc degeneration. Discs are tissue between the vertebrae that function as a type of shock absorber; the discs can break down with age.
  • Injuries such as sprains or fractures or more severe injuries such as a fall or an auto accident.
  • Diseases and conditions, such as scoliosis, a curvature of the spine, or spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal column. Kidney stones, pregnancy, endometriosis, certain cancers, and various forms of arthritis can all lead to back pain.

A large number of the participants in the British study suffered disc degeneration.

Sometimes the cause of back pain might not be determined.

Can Nocturnal Back Pain Be a Sign of Something Serious?

Guidelines for discovering serious spinal health problems list a number of "red flags," among them nocturnal back pain.

Nocturnal back pain can be a symptom of spinal tumors. It could be a primary tumor, one that originates in the spine, or it could be a metastatic tumor, one that results from cancer that started elsewhere in the body and then spread to the spine.

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