Understanding Back Pain -- the Basics

We've all had back problems from time to time. The hurt can stem from sore muscles, ligaments and tendons, herniated discs, fractures, and other problems.

What Does a Healthy Spine Look Like?

There's a lot riding on your spinal column. It's your body's main structural support. It keeps you stable enough to stand upright but flexible enough for movement. The 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 houses and protects your spinal cord, the network of nerves that transmit feeling and control movement throughout your entire body.

Back Pain: The Spine

What Causes Back Pain?

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 cord.

Also, we often bring on our back problems through bad habits, such as:

  • Poor posture
  • Overexerting yourself at work or while playing
  • Sitting incorrectly at the desk or at the steering wheel
  • Pushing, pulling, and lifting things carelessly

Sometimes you feel the effects right away. 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 your back might ache for no clear reason. That's called nonspecific backache. It may be caused by weakened muscles that can't handle everyday walking, bending, and stretching. In other cases, back pain may come from an injury involving pulling or twisting or some kind of overuse or repetitive damage.

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

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on October 26, 2015



Oh, W. The Clinical Journal of Pain January/February 2004. 

Friedman, F. Outwitting Back Pain: Why Your Lower Back Hurts and How to Make It Stop, Lyons Press, 2004.

© 2015 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.