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Back Pain

Painful sensation in the back region.

PubMed Health Glossary
(Source: NIH - National Cancer Institute)

About Back Pain

It is important to understand that back pain is a symptom of a medical condition, not a diagnosis itself. Medical problems that can cause back pain include the following:

Mechanical problems: A mechanical problem is a problem with the way your spine moves or the way you feel when you move your spine in certain ways. Perhaps the most common mechanical cause of back pain is a condition called intervertebral disk degeneration, which simply means that the disks located between the vertebrae of the spine are breaking down with age. As they deteriorate, they lose their cushioning ability. This problem can lead to pain if the back is stressed. Other mechanical causes of back pain include spasms, muscle tension, and ruptured disks, which are also called herniated disks.

Injuries: Spine injuries such as sprains and fractures can cause either short-lived or chronic pain. Sprains are tears in the ligaments that support the spine, and they can occur from twisting or lifting improperly. Fractured vertebrae are often the result of osteoporosis. Less commonly, back pain may be caused by more severe injuries that result from accidents or falls...Read more about Back Pain National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases

What works? Research summarized

Evidence reviews

Major Trauma: Assessment and Initial Management

This guideline provides guidance on the assessment and management of major trauma, including resuscitation following major blood loss associated with trauma. For the purposes of this guideline, major trauma is defined as an injury or a combination of injuries that are life-threatening and could be life changing because it may result in long-term disability. This guideline covers both the pre-hospital and immediate hospital care of major trauma patients but does not include any management after definitive lifesaving intervention. It has been developed for health practitioners and professionals, patients and carers and commissioners of health services.

Acute Neck and Back Pain: Preventive Interventions -- Effects of Physical Training, Manual Treatment and Cognitive Behavioral Interventions [Internet]

Aim The aim of the report was to evaluate the effects of preventive measures in cases of acute pain in the back and neck, i.e. treatment intended to prevent the persistence of pain as a chronic condition. The effects were to be evaluated at least three months after completion of treatment. The methods were evaluated from medical, economic and ethical perspectives.

Radiofrequency denervation for neck and back pain

Radiofrequency denervation can relieve pain from neck joints, but may not relieve pain originating from lumbar discs, and its impact on low‐back joint pain is uncertain.

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Summaries for consumers

Low back pain: Warning signs of serious problems

Low back pain usually does not have a clearly identifiable cause, is not dangerous and goes away on its own. Only rarely is it caused by a serious problem such as a broken bone or infection. It is often possible to tell based on particular symptoms and warning signs.The following may be warning signs of a serious health problem. If you have low back pain together with one or more of these warning signs, you should have a doctor give you a careful examination:Pain that radiates into the legs and is accompanied by numbness, tingling or paralysis: This kind of radiating pain may be a sign of potential damage to nerves that leave the spinal cord at the base of the spine.Problems with urination or bowel movements: These symptoms, as well as numbness around the buttocks (perineum and anus), can be signs of potential damage to the nerves in the tailbone region. This is a medical emergency and requires immediate medical attention.Fever or chills: These symptoms may occur in connection with a spinal infection.Unexplained weight loss, physical weakness and pain that gets worse when you lie on your back: These symptoms may be a sign of a tumor. This may be a benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous) tumor around the spine, or metastases that have spread from malignant tumors elsewhere, for example breast or prostate cancer.It is also important to see a doctor if you have low back pain following an accident. These warning signs do not necessarily mean that you have a serious condition. That can only be confirmed after you have seen your doctor. Your overall health and other aspects like your age or risk factors for certain diseases such as osteoporosis also play a role.

Low back pain: Relaxation and psychological treatments for chronic back pain

The mind is one factor that can influence how we perceive pain and how well we cope with it. Also, stress and emotional problems are believed to be possible causes of chronic low back pain. Psychological treatments such as relaxation techniques and cognitive behavioral therapy can be used to tackle these issues.Almost everyone experiences low back pain at some point in their lives. If there are no serious underlying conditions, the symptoms usually go away on their own after a few days or weeks. But "non-specific" low back pain may also last longer or keep returning after symptom-free periods. It is then referred to as chronic or recurrent low back pain.Targeted treatment is often difficult because the causes of non-specific low back pain are often unknown. Relaxation techniques and psychological treatments are commonly used to treat chronic low back pain. Other treatments include medication, special exercises and physiotherapy.

Low back pain: Medication for chronic back pain

Over-the-counter painkillers can sometimes relieve chronic low back pain. Studies have also found that some prescription painkillers like opioids may have a benefit. There is no proof that muscle relaxants or antidepressants help relieve chronic low back pain.Low back pain is one of the ten most common diagnoses made by family doctors. It often goes away on its own without treatment, but sometimes it persists or keeps coming back. The causes of chronic low back pain are usually unclear, and treating it is often difficult.Good-quality studies have so far found that only few treatments help. Besides medication, treatments such as exercise therapy, psychological therapy, physiotherapy and acupuncture are used. The medications used include over-the-counter and prescription painkillers, muscle relaxants and antidepressants.Because medication can have side effects – especially when taken over longer periods of time – experts recommend not taking it continuously, but rather only for a short while, for example if the pain is especially severe.

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Terms to know

Cervical Spine
The upper portion of the spine closest to the skull. The cervical spine comprises seven vertebrae.
Fascia
A sheet or band of fibrous connective tissue enveloping, separating, or binding together muscles, organs and other soft structures of the body.
Lumbar Spine
The lower portion of the spine. The lumbar spine comprises five vertebrae.
Muscles
Muscles function to produce force and motion. They are primarily responsible for maintaining and changing posture, locomotion, as well as movement of internal organs, such as the contraction of the heart and the movement of food through the digestive system.
Nerves
A bundle of fibers that receives and sends messages between the body and the brain. The messages are sent by chemical and electrical changes in the cells that make up the nerves.
Spine
The bones, muscles, tendons, and other tissues that reach from the base of the skull to the tailbone. The spine encloses the spinal cord and the fluid surrounding the spinal cord. Also called backbone, spinal column, and vertebral column.
Thoracic Spine
Thoracic vertebrae compose the middle segment, between the cervical vertebrae and the lumbar vertebrae. There are twelve thoracic vertebrae.

More about Back Pain

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See Also: Sciatica

Other terms to know: See all 7
Cervical Spine, Fascia, Lumbar Spine

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