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Understanding Back Pain -- the Basics

What Is Back Pain?

We've all experienced back problems from time to time -- lower back pain or strain of the neck. In fact, problems from back pain are the most common physical complaints among American adults and are a leading cause of lost job time -- to say nothing of the time and money spent in search of relief.

Back pain includes sore muscles and tendons, herniated discs, fractures, and other problems. Most often, the causes of back pain have developed over a long period of time.

Understanding Back Pain

The Spinal Column

The spinal column is an extraordinary mechanism. It keeps us stable enough to stand upright but flexible enough for movement. The backbone, or spine, is actually a stack of 24 individual bones called vertebrae.

A healthy spine is S-shaped when viewed from the side. It curves back at the shoulders and inward at the neck and small of the back. It's the body's main structural support. It also houses and protects the spinal cord, the intricate network of nerves that runs through the vertebrae to transmit feeling and control movement throughout the entire body.

Back Pain: The Spine

 

 

What Causes Back Pain?

Back pain ranks high on the list of self-inflicted ailments. Most of our back troubles happen because of bad habits, generally developed over a long period of time. These bad back habits include:

  • Poor posture
  • Overexertion in work and play
  • Sitting incorrectly at the desk or at the steering wheel
  • Pushing, pulling, and lifting things carelessly

Sometimes, the effects are immediate, but in many cases back problems develop over time. One of the more common types of back pain comes from straining the bands of muscles surrounding the spine. Although such strains can occur anywhere along the spine, they happen most often in the curve of the lower back. The next most common place is at the base of the neck.

Sometimes backaches occur for no apparent reason. This is called nonspecific backache. It may develop from weakened muscles that cannot handle everyday walking, bending, and stretching. In other cases, the discomfort seems to come from general tension, lack of proper sleep, and/or stress.

A condition called myofascial strain causes chronic backache from localized muscle tension. Sometimes this original muscle tension comes from stress or other emotional problems.

Whether the muscle strain is from lifting heavy objects or from something as innocuous as a sneeze makes little difference -- the pain can be agonizing.

Pregnancy commonly brings on back pain. Hormonal changes and weight gain put new kinds of stresses on a pregnant woman's spine and legs.

Injuries from contact sports, accidents, and falls can cause problems ranging from minor muscle strains to herniated discs to fractures that cause severe damage to the spinal column or the spinal cord itself.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Ann Edmundson, MD, PhD on May 07, 2013
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