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Back pain

Back pain is tension, stiffness, aching or pain (sometimes severe) felt in the back most commonly originating from muscles, vertebrae or joints of the back

Introduction to back pain

Back pain is a very common problem with around four in five people being affected by it at some point in their lives. It mostly affects people between the ages of 35 and 50 and can last for days, months or even years.

Pain in the back can be triggered by a variety of different factors such as sitting incorrectly, awkward bending or lifting, or even sports injuries. However in most cases, the trigger is not what causes back pain, it merely reveals the presence of an existing physiological condition in the back.

Back pain is most often experienced in the lower back but it can be experienced anywhere along the spine, from the neck all the way down to the hips.

The spine

The human spine (or backbone) is made up of 33 individual bones called vertebrae. These may be grouped into:

  • Cervical (7 vertebrae in the neck)
  • Thoracic (12 vertebrae in the chest area)
  • Lumbar (5 vertebrae in the lower back)
  • Sacrum (5 fused vertebrae in the lower back)
  • Coccyx (4 fused vertebrae in what would have been our tail)

These are joined by intervertebral discs, and along with joints and ligaments, form a strong, flexible column which provides support for the rest of our skeleton as well as protection for the spinal cord - one of the most important parts of our body as it carries nerves from the brain to almost every part of our being.

During middle age and beyond, the most common cause of back pain is the wear and tear of the intervertebral discs and other related structures of the spine. These changes are most often caused by ‘excessive use’ or movement, and therefore are more common in the neck (cervical) and the lower (lumbar) parts of the spine.

Acute and chronic back pain

Depending on how long symptoms last, back pain may be classified as ‘acute’ or’ chronic’. This definition is important as it influences how back pain is treated. In general, the following guidelines are used:

  • Acute back pain – lasting less than six weeks
  • Sub-acute back pain – lasting six weeks to three months
  • Chronic back pain – lasting longer than three month

Follow the link for more information on symptoms and treatment of back pain.

Types of back pain

Pain in the back or spine can be divided into upper or lower back pain.

  • Lower back pain (or low back pain) is the most common type of back pain and is often experienced as a stiffness, tension or ache in the lumbar area. It is often caused by muscle injury (eg. lifting a heavy object) and generally is not a serious problem with 50% of episodes resolving within two weeks of occurrence.
  • Upper back pain is not as common as lower back pain and affects mainly the cervical (neck) or sometimes the thoracic (chest) areas. Upper back pain leads to similar symptoms as low back pain - stiffness and tension in the neck and shoulders with limitation of movement. It can also be caused by a muscular injury but osteoarthritis is also a cause in older people. Sometimes however, one can simply wake up in the morning with a stiff neck and acute upper back pain.

Causes of back pain

In most cases, back pain is caused by minor sprains or injuries to the muscles in the back or by the degeneration of the spinal vertebrae due to the wear and tear of advancing age. It can be triggered by normal, everyday activities at home or at work, or progress slowly as a result of bad posture or lifting badly.

The main back pain causes include:

  • bending awkwardly
  • over-stretching of muscles
  • sports injuries
  • lifting or carrying heavy objects
  • driving for long periods
  • being overweight

Occasionally pain occurs without a known trigger. Some people simply wake up in the morning and find themselves with back pain without knowing the cause or trigger.

There are other more serious causes of back pain such as rheumatoid arthritis or spinal stenosis. However these are rare.

Follow the link for more information on the causes of back pain.

Preventing back pain

Maintaining a strong and supple back is the most effective way of avoiding back pain. To do this, ensure that you:

  • take regular exercise, particularly walking and swimming
  • minimise stress levels
  • ensure that any lifting or carrying is done correctly
  • maintain a good posture

If you experience recurring episodes of back pain, pay attention to:

  • making sure that you are not overweight
  • wearing flat shoes which have cushioned soles
  • avoiding sudden movements
  • keeping active

For more detailed information on preventing back pain follow the link to our page on back pain causes.

Further reading:
Back pain symptoms
Back pain causes
Lower back pain
Upper back pain
Back pain exercises