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Back Pain

What Is Back Pain?

Last modified: 
09/01/2014 - 10:42

Contributing Author: Guy Slowik FRCS

Back pain is one of the most common physical complaints among adults - and a chief cause of misery for many. At some point in their lives, most people will experience some sort of back discomfort.

Back pain describes pain or discomfort felt in the upper, middle, or lower back. The pain may extend to the hips and legs. The back consists of a complex arrangement of bone, ligaments, joints, muscles, and nerves, and pain can result from a problem with any of these components.

The most common type of back pain is low back pain. That's because the lower portion of the back is under the most pressure when a person is sitting or lifting, and it can be easily damaged.

There are many causes of back pain.

  • The most common cause is a strain of the back, which is a small tear of the back muscles or ligaments. This usually results from a sudden or awkward movement, or from lifting a heavy object. But often, a person can't remember a particular incident that brought on the pain.
  • Other common causes include poor muscle tone in the back, tension or spasm of the back muscles and problems with the joints that make up the back.

Nice To Know:

Some 50 years ago, back pain was seen in simple terms. Today, there is better understanding of the complex nature of the spinal structures, and the relationship of the brain and spinal cord. As a result, the causes of back problems are identified with much greater accuracy but in some cases may still be elusive.

Back pain can be classified as either:

  • Acute - Sudden pain that lasts for just a short while, usually a few days to a few weeks.
  • Chronic - Pain that lasts for more than three month, or pain that recurs.

Statistics show that with simple treatment, up to 90% of people with acute back pain improve within one month and up to 60% improve within a week. Even severe back pain due to a herniated disc often resolves within six weeks, as the protruding discs begins to shrink.

Fortunately, most cases of acute low back pain improve quickly - within a few days, or sometimes within a few weeks. And in less than 5% of people the pain persists and becomes chronic.

Nice To Know:

How common is low back pain?

Low back pain is common. At some point in their lives, most people will experience some form of back discomfort. Some researchers believe that back pain is a problem of civilization - primitive tribes lived by hunting and did not experience the type of back pain that comes from sitting in chairs, in today's culture, from our very childhood at school. Other researchers believe that people began to experience back pain as soon as man began to walk in an upright manner. Despite today's increasing medical technology and understanding, back pain continues to be an obvious and complex problem.

Who Is At Risk?

Certain people are at higher risk for back pain, including:

  • Those whose work includes heavy labor or long periods of sitting and standing.
  • Those who are "out of shape," as they may have let the muscles in the abdomen and back become weak and easily fatigued, placing extra strain on the muscles and joints of the back.
  • Those who have jobs that subject their backs to a lot of vibration.
  • Those who do heavy lifting without having the proper education and training to lift correctly.
  • Those who smoke (smokers are more likely than nonsmokers to suffer from back pain).

Facts About Back Pain

  • In the U.S., back pain competes with the common cold as the leading reason why people see a physician.
  • Back pain is the number-one cause of disability in workers under age 45.
  • Aside from the physical distress, back pain carries steep economic costs - an estimated $20 to $50 billion annually in medical treatments and disability payments.
  • Most episodes of acute back pain go away within a month.
  • Despite today's medical technology, many forms of treatment do not affect the course of most acute low back pain episodes.
  • Only 10% of those suffering from acute back pain require special diagnostic testing.

 

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Back Pain

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From Andrew Maynard - Chair of the University of Michigan Department of Environmental Health Sciences, with help from David Faulkner - 2013 Master of Public Health graduate.