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If back pain is affecting your quality of life, you are not alone. Many types of injuries and conditions can cause back problems, making back pain a common reason people schedule a visit to see their doctors.
Treatment depends on the type of back pain and the potential cause. Most instances of back pain can be prevented or relieved at home, but sometimes it requires treatment options, such as surgery, to relieve pain.
Causes of and Risk Factors for Back Pain
It can be difficult to determine the cause of your back pain, but your doctors will do their best to identify the type of back pain you have and what may be causing it. The following are conditions that typically cause back pain:
- Arthritis: The most common symptoms of arthritis are joint pain and stiffness, which typically worsen with age. Arthritis is the swelling and tenderness of one or more of your joints.
- Muscle or ligament strain: An injury to a muscle or a tendon can occur with heavy lifting, participation in contact sports, or sudden movement.
- Osteoporosis: Bones become weak and brittle with osteoporosis. Injuries to the hips, wrist, or spine are most common.
- Ruptured or bulging disks: Typical wear and tear can occur with age as the disks start to flatten or bulge outward.
There are also common risk factors associated with back pain, including the following:
- Excessive weight gain
- Improper lifting
- Lack of exercise
- Psychological conditions
Symptoms of Back Pain
Symptoms of back pain can range significantly in severity. Pain can present as aching muscles or a burning or stabbing sensation. Pain may also radiate down your leg or worsen with physical activity.
Back pain can improve with home treatment and self-care, but you might need to consult your doctor if your back pain
- Causes weakness, numbness, or tingling in one or both legs.
- Doesn’t improve with rest.
- Is accompanied by unexplained weight loss.
- Lasts more than a few weeks.
- Radiates down one or both legs.
Back pain can sometimes signify a serious medical problem. Seek immediate medical care if your back pain
- Causes bowel or bladder problems.
- Is accompanied by a fever.
- Follows an accident or injury.
Types of Back Pain
Don’t ignore the symptoms of back pain. There are three different types of back pain when it comes to symptoms and available treatments.
- Acute back pain: This pain lasts less than three to six months. Acute back pain is temporary and often subsides with treatment.
- Chronic back pain: This pain lasts four to six months or more. Chronic back pain often involves some type of nerve compression aggravated by movement or a condition.
- Neuropathic back pain: Also called nerve pain, this pain is different from chronic back pain in that it appears to originate in the nervous system.
Diagnosis of Back Pain
Back pain will be diagnosed during your appointment with your primary care doctor. Your doctor will examine your back as well as assess your ability to sit, stand, walk, and lift your legs. You will also be asked to rate your pain on a scale of 0 to 10 and talk about your level of function at home.
These assessments can help rule out more serious causes of back pain, as well as help determine where the pain comes from and your ability to function independently.
If your doctor suspects a specific condition is causing your back pain, one of the following tests might be ordered:
- Blood tests
- Bone scan
- MRI or CT scans
- Nerve studies
Prevention and Treatment of Back Pain
Back pain can be avoided in many cases by improving your physical condition. The following actions can help improve your health and prevent back pain:
- Build muscle strength and flexibility.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Quit smoking.
In many cases, back pain improves within a month of treatment at home. However, back pain is a complex condition, and it may require months of treatment to subside. Few individuals have persistent, severe pain that goes away without treatment.
Treatment can be as simple as taking over-the-counter pain relievers, using heat, or pursuing treatment methods such as physical therapy.
Depending on the type of back pain you have, your doctor may recommend the following:
- Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers
- Muscle relaxants
- Topical pain relievers
During physical therapy, a physical therapist will teach you exercises to help you increase your flexibility, strengthen your back and abdominal muscles, and improve your posture. Using these techniques can help keep back pain from returning.
Physical therapists can also help you cope with pain while you continue your day-to-day activities. They can show you how to modify your movements during an episode of back pain to avoid worsening symptoms.
Back pain can also be treated with surgical options and other procedures, including the following:
- Cortisone injections: If your pain radiates down your leg, your doctor may inject cortisone and a numbing medication into the space around your spinal cord. This helps decrease inflammation around the nerve roots, temporarily relieving pain.
- Radiofrequency neurotomy: A fine needle is inserted through the skin near the area causing your pain. Radio waves are passed through the needle to damage the nearby nerves, interfering with the delivery of pain signals to the brain.
- Implanted nerve stimulators: Devices are implanted under your skin to deliver electrical impulses to nerves, blocking pain signals.
Alternative treatments might also ease symptoms of back pain. It is important to always discuss the benefits and risks of alternative therapy with your doctor before trying anything new.
- Chiropractic care
- Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS)