Millions of Americans suffer from chronic back and spine pain. In fact, it is the leading cause of disability in people younger than 45. While most of us will experience back pain at some point in our lives, it isn’t always easy to identify the source. To help you understand and treat this condition, we’ve broken down some of the most common causes.
SPRAINS AND STRAINS
A back sprain is an injury in the ligaments that connect the bones in your back. Back strain, on the other hand, is an injury to the tendons that connect back muscles to bone. Both conditions can be caused by bad posture, overuse, and heavy lifting. These types of sprains and strains manifest primarily as pain when the patient moves the affected area, stiffness, and muscle spasms.
A herniated disc is the result of a tear in the cartilage disc between vertebrae. When a disc is herniated, its exposed center begins to protrude and place pressure on surrounding nerves. While any disc can become herniated, the majority of cases occur in the lower spine, or lumbar, region.
Herniated discs tend to cause pain in the neck or lower back, numbness or a tingling sensation in fingers and toes, and a feeling of weakness in the back muscles. A small number of cases will not present any noticeable symptoms, as the disc may not be compressing a nerve.
DEGENERATIVE DISC DISEASE
Degenerative disc disease is another condition involving intervertebral cartilage discs. Over time, these discs naturally dehydrate, weaken, and contract. This results in greater pressure on the vertebrae and surrounding nerves. Degenerative disc disease is usually caused by aging and exacerbated by conditions like arthritis and osteoarthritis, which put the cartilage under greater pressure.
Degenerative disc disease can cause slight to severe pain in the neck and upper back, numbness or tingling in the shoulders or arms, and muscle spasms. The pain may be heightened by sitting down, or by bending or twisting the spine.
Like degenerative disc disease, spinal stenosis is common in older patients. It is the result of decaying discs and tissues in the lower spine. Some causes of spinal stenosis include arthritis, trauma, tumors, herniated discs, and degenerative disc disease. The lower spine is especially susceptible to injury and degenerative diseases because it supports much of the body’s weight.
Symptoms of spinal stenosis vary greatly from patient to patient. You may not feel any pain, or you may be in severe pain if the condition has progressed enough to compress nerve roots. Some degree of lower back pain, which worsens when walking or moving, is the most common symptom. Other indicators of the condition include numbness or tingling in the hip, knee, or ankle joints, and weakness in the legs while walking.
Conservative treatments such as anti-inflammatory medications and physical therapy are often effective in alleviating spine pain. Through therapy, you can strengthen the muscles of the spine in order to reduce inflammation. While non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications are most commonly prescribed, more severe pain can be alleviated with narcotics, muscle relaxers, or oral steroids.
In more severe cases, surgery may be necessary. The conditions above may be treated through joint reshaping, nerve decompression in the spinal canal, or removing some of the damaged disc through a procedure known as a discectomy.
Our backs are complex systems, which is why the cause of back pain can be difficult to identify. If you’re suffering from pain in your spine, take the next step towards treatment by contacting an orthopedic specialist today.