Back pain is one of the most common reasons for discomfort that people experience. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, almost every person will have at least one episode of low back pain in a lifetime.
The good news is for most, back pain usually resolves within a few weeks. Despite this silver lining, back pain is often one of the most difficult conditions to diagnose and treat. This is because as the support structure for our bodies, the spine is made up of a complicated series of bones, discs, muscles, nerves and ligaments.
The most common causes of back pain include:
- Arthritis: This disease can affect any joint in the body, including the small joints in the spine. Anklyosing spondylitis and cervical arthritis are two types of arthritis that affect the spine. Anklyosing spondylitis is a chronic inflammatory arthritis in the spine and cervical arthritis affects the upper spine, causing pain in the neck and shoulders.
- Discogenic Back Pain: Also known as disc degeneration, this is a common reason for low back and neck pain. Discogenic back pain is caused by "wear and tear" damage to a disc in the spine. The wear and tear is typically the result of normal aging. This does not mean, though, that a person with disc degeneration will forever have to deal with pain. Despite being a degenerative disease, discogenic back pain may improve over time with simple treatment options.
- Herniated Disc: Discs are located between the bones, or vertebrae, of the spine and act as pads that protect the vertebrae and allow the spine to move and bend. The outer portion of a disc is made up of thick cartilage and the inner portion is comprised of a gel-like substance. When a disc is herniated, or ruptured, the gel-like substance is pushed out of the inner portion of the disc and puts pressure on the surrounding spinal nerves. When this happens in the lumbar, or lower, spine pain, numbness, tingling or weakness in the legs is usually the result. This is also called sciatica. When a disc in the cervical, or neck area, of the spine ruptures the result is pain, weakness or numbness in the neck, shoulders and arms.
- Muscle Sprain or Strain: As with any other muscle, the muscles in the back can be sprained or strained during activity. A sprain means you've stretched or torn a ligament, which is a band of tissue connecting bones together. A strain occurs when you pull or tear a muscle or tendon, a thick cord of tissue that attaches muscle to bone.
- Osteoporosis: Our bones are hard, providing structure for our muscles and protecting our organs. Despite their apparent rigidity, bones are living tissue in a constant state of change. Our body continually removes old bone while new bone is produced to replace it. Until about age 30, our body removes old bone and replaces it with new bone at a nearly equal rate. After 30, and especially in women following menopause, the rate of absorbing old bone begins to occur more rapidly than the rate of new bone being produced. Over time, the result is weakened bones, or osteoporosis, and an increase risk of fractures, including in the vertebrae.
- Spinal Stenosis: The spinal canal is the protecting home of the spinal cord and nerves. Spinal stenosis occurs when the canal begins to narrow and pinch the nerves in the spine, which causes pain and loss of muscle control in the lower back and legs. Aging, arthritis or heredity can all be causes of spinal stenosis.
- Spondylosis and Spondylolisthesis: Spondylolysis is a stress fracture in a vertebra, or bone, of the lower spine. Spondylolysis is more common in teen athletes, especially those participating in sports requiring repeated hyperextension of the lower back - like football, wrestling and gymnastics. If the fracture continues to develop, it may cause the vertebra to weaken to the point of slipping out of place. This condition is called spondylolisthesis.
Because the spine is a complex arrangement of bones, muscles, ligaments and nerves, when diagnosing and treating back pain there is no single treatment that works for all patients. Your spine specialist will work with you to determine the best course of treatment for your condition.
Orthopedics is the area of medicine specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of bone, joint, tissue and nerve disorders, including those in the neck, back and spine. The specialists at VOA's Spine Services offer the latest in neurosurgery, occupational medicine and rehabilitation, electrodiagnostic and nerve conduction studies, and spinal surgery.
If you are currently living with a neck, back or spine condition, call VOA's Spine Services at 425-656-5060.
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