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HomeHealth A-Z Back Pain
Back Pain
Back Pain
There are a variety of exercises that are beneficial for treating and preventing back pain by increasing flexibility and strength.

Back Pain

(BAK peyn)

Definition of Back Pain

Back pain is a general term used to describe pain below the cervical spine (neck). It does not usually indicate any specific underlying disease.

Description of Back Pain

Lots of people suffer from back pain. The following information will help you better understand the causes, risk factors, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of back pain. Being educated about back pain is the best way to prevent it from occurring or affectively treat it.

The back is a network of muscles and vertebrae that support the body in every single move it makes. As a result it is easy to injure the back. However, treating back pain can be done by avoiding certain activities and changing things like posture. Very rarely is surgery necessary to relieve chronic back pain.

Causes and Risk Factors of Back Pain

The majority of your weight is supported by your lower back. The lower back also receives the blunt of the stress you place on your body. So, it stands to reason that back pain will occur at some point from poor posture, strained muscles and ligaments, or even a quick movement that stresses the back. Sometimes there is no particular cause for back pain but rather an accumulation of events leads to it. There are some actual conditions that are responsible for back pain and have specific treatments.


A condition caused by a herniated disk pressing on the sciatic nerve that causes sharp pain in the back of the leg and buttocks.

Herniated Disk

When a disk presses on a nerve.

Spinal Stenosis

When arthritis or bone overgrowth narrows the amount of space surrounding the spinal cord and nerve roots and pinches a nerve.


Degenerative changes of the spine from arthritis.

Spine Cancer

A spinal tumor that presses on a nerve could be cancer that causes pain from the pressure.


When one vertebra moves onto another.

Injury of the Spine

When the spine is injured due to a fall, wreck, sports injury, or something else.

Symptoms of Back Pain

The symptoms of back pain are in general back pain. Depending on what causes the back pain there may be additional symptoms present including pain into the legs.

Diagnosis of Back Pain

Most doctors don’t use diagnostic tests for individuals presenting with back pain. However, the doctor will ask you to walk and move about to determine the extent of your pain and where it stems from. This evaluation will also determine if you have a simple case of back pain or if there is something more serious causing the pain. In the event a serious cause, like a tumor or infection, is suspected other tests will be used to determine what the problem is.

An MRI may be performed. This will show any problems with bones, nerves, blood vessels, muscles, tendons, ligaments, tissues, tumors, or any other possible problem.

X rays are used to determine if there are any fractures or if there is degenerative joint disease. The x rays cannot show if there is a problem within a muscle however.

If a compressed nerve is suspected then a nerve study might be conducted.

Occasionally a physician will do a bone scan to look for compression fractures or tumors; however this is not a frequent diagnostic tool for back pain.

Treatment of Back Pain

Generally back pain may be treated at home with relief being found within 72 hours. Pain relievers in addition to hot and cold packs usually help ease the pain. Lying in bed for a day or two may be beneficial, but longer will only make back pain worse. There are a wide array of therapies and medications available, however, for those individuals who do not find relief through hot and cold therapy and ibuprofen.


Prescription medications that are stronger than over the counter medications may be what is needed to relieve back pain. Muscle relaxers are sometimes prescribed, but non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are most common.

Physical Therapy

Electrical stimulation, ultrasound, heat, ice, muscle relaxation techniques, and more are just some of the treatment options provided through physical therapy. There are a variety of exercises that are also beneficial to increase flexibility and strength.

Electrical Stimulation

Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, TENS, is a popular treatment for lower back pain. A small amount of electric current is sent through a machine to places on the back. The point is to prevent pain signals from reaching the brain and provide relief to acute lower back pain.

Cortisone Injections

When pain is not reduced by the other treatment options and you have a pinched nerve then cortisone injections may be an option.

Other treatment options include surgery for a herniated disk, antidepressants for chronic back pain and other treatments deemed necessary by the physician.

Prevention of Back Pain

Most people can prevent lower back pain simply by learning how to move their body and support their back. There are some cases of back pain that cannot be prevented, but for those that can it is certainly worth the effort. The most important thing is knowing how to use your back so as not to injure it. For instance, you should know how to sit, stand, lift, and sleep properly. Basically, you should always keep hips and knees level when sitting and choose a chair with arm rests and a firm back. If you stand for long periods of time then alternately place one foot on a footstool. This will ease lower back pressure and reduce the risk of pain. Avoiding back pain means lifting properly as well. Always lift with your legs and keep your back straight. Never twist while standing and lifting and use a partner to help with really heavy loads. Finally, use a pillow that helps keep your spine aligned and a medium firm mattress.

Other ways to help prevent back pain include not smoking, exercising, maintaining a healthy weight, and building strength and muscle to help support the back. Doing this these things will complement your new sitting, standing, lifting, and sleeping methods and you will be able to prevent the majority of back pain.

External Resources

National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases

North American Spine Society

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