Back pain is arguably the most common health complaint of adults in the United States. Almost the entire adult population will experience back pain at some point during their lifetime, but in many cases, the discomfort is only temporary. Nevertheless, a 2017 report by Statista shows that a shocking 54% of Americans had been experiencing neck or back pain for five years or longer. When you consider this statistic, perhaps it is less surprising to learn that back pain is also one of the leading causes of time absent from work and is estimated to cost the U.S. economy more than $100 billion each year.
Safe to say, if you are experiencing back pain, you are definitely not alone. However, it can be incredibly frustrating and debilitating and, in some cases, may make you feel cut off from those around you, particularly if your back pain prevents you from doing the things you would like to.
What causes back pain?
Unfortunately, there are nearly as many different causes of back pain as there are terms to describe the pain and symptoms of a back problem. The back is an extremely complex part of our body. Our spinal cord, which houses our central nervous system, is sheathed and protected by several dozen small bones called vertebrae, and between each is a small, gel-filled disc called an intervertebral disc. Their job is to cushion the spine against impacts and allow us to bend and twist. Around the spinal cord are millions of nerves, each of which is capable of transmitting messages about sensation and pain.
When a back injury occurs, it is not always obvious. In fact, in many cases a patient doesn’t realise they have suffered damage to their back until they start to experience symptoms such as pain and limited mobility. In some cases, the true cause of the pain is never discovered, and the symptoms disappear as quickly as they started.
Here are some of the most common causes of adult back pain.
A trapped nerve
A trapped nerve is an extremely common cause of back pain and occurs when nerves become compressed, trapped or irritated, often between the vertebrae. This can be caused by a number of things including arthritis, bone spurs, spinal stenosis or a herniated disc. Fortunately, it is relatively simple to diagnose a trapped nerve, and you will probably be referred for physical therapy/chiropractor care to help release the pressure on the nerve. Pain relief medications ill help ease your discomfort in the meantime.
Symptoms of a trapped nerve include burning pain, sciatica, strange sensations including numbness or pins and needles and muscle weakness.
Also known as a slipped disc, this is when the gel on the inside of your intervertebral discs begins to penetrate through the tough outer layer. This is normally a result of a crack or tear in the wall of the disc, which places pressure on the spinal nerves and irritates those nearby. When this happens it causes pain, numbness and weakness of the back and/or the upper/lower limbs.
Fortunately, treatment is available in the form of physical therapy and NSAIDs, although in some cases, surgery may be recommended.
Degenerative disc disease
Unfortunately, certain parts of our body tend to degenerate as we get older and our spine is no exception. The intervertebral discs in our body begin to dehydrate and this causes cellular changes that mean they are no longer able to absorb impacts as effectively. Their shape and height may also change, which can mean that the space around the spinal cord is reduced, increasing the likelihood that nerves will become compressed and cause back pain.
While degenerative disc disease can be managed, it is an unfortunate and inevitable part of the ageing process.
Sciatica refers to the irritation of the nerve that runs from the lower back to the feet, aptly called the sciatic nerve. When this happens, often as a result of poor posture or an injury, the patient may experience pain in the lower back, buttocks and legs, as well as numbness, tingling and weakness. Most instances of sciatica do resolve themselves, although some patients will find that they have repeated episodes during their lifetime.
Most people know that obesity comes hand in hand with a range of moderate to severe health problems, one of which is back pain. Unfortunately, when you are carrying excess weight it puts additional pressure on your musculoskeletal system including your spine. This means that you are more likely to experience painful back problems such as sciatica and a slipped disc.
In some rare cases, back pain can be a sign that there is a serious underlying problem such as a broken bone, infection or even a tumor. However, these instances are highly unlikely, and the patient usually suffers a multitude of other symptoms too.
If you are suffering from back pain and you don’t know exactly what is causing it, our doctor should be your first port of call if you have any other worrying symptoms. Otherwise, we strongly recommend that you schedule a consultation with our chiropractor, who can help you determine the root of the problem and work with you to alleviate your discomfort.