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What is Back Pain?

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Updated December 24, 2012

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Question: What is Back Pain?
Back pain is unmistakable when you have it. Learn about back pain types and causes.
Answer:

What Back Pain Is

Back pain is an easily recognizable problem that can bring on a number of sensations. It can present itself in any location along the spine, a stack of 26 bones connected by ligaments, muscles and shock-absorbing disks.

Back pain is one of the most common complaints brought to doctors in the United States. Over six million cases are seen annually, with the majority being in the lower back. It's expensive, too, ranking 3rd after heart disease and cancer. Around 80 percent of people get back pain sometime in their lives. Although back pain can be categorized in a number of ways, the most obvious is by location. Many types of back problems can occur almost anywhere along the spine.

Lower Back Pain

According to the New England Journal of Medicine, about two-thirds of adults will experience low back pain at some point.

Low back pain occurs in the area of the back that goes from just below the bottom of the ribs down to the the tailbone. The pain can be caused by numerous factors such as bone spurs, a herniated disk or muscle spasms. Sometimes low back pain is accompanied by pain going down the leg, called sciatica. Sciatic pain is created when a damaged area of the spine puts pressure on the sciatic nerve.

A 2005 study from Toronto Western Hospital Research showed that while most lower back pain is mild in severity, less than one-third of the cases resolve within a year. The study also notes that seniors have more persistent and recurring back pain than young adults, and that 20 percent of all lower back pain cases recur within 6 months.

Some Types of Low Back Pain:

Neck Pain

Neck pain occurs in the area of the spine that goes from the level of the shoulders to the head. It can be caused by tight muscles, posture problems or other issues. Just as low back pain may cause sciatica, the more serious type of neck problems may cause pain down the arms. Rarely, neck pain may be caused by infections such as meningitis or by tumors that press on the spine. Most of the time, however, the culprits are posture and wear and tear.

Some Types of Neck Pain

Chronic and Acute and Back Pain

Back pain can be acute or chronic. Distinguishing between these two types of pain will help determine what can be done about it. Acute symptoms come on suddenly, usually in response to an event such as an injury. They generally last for a few days to a few weeks, but may become chronic. Chronic back pain will nag you for a long time, and in some cases might force you to alter your lifestyle significantly. Experts vary on the length of time pain has to be present before they will call it chronic pain, ranging from 3 to 6 months. If your back or neck pain has been bothering you for at least 3 months, consult your physician.

Guidelines for acute pain include staying as active as your pain will allow. Exercise therapy has been shown to be effective for chronic back pain.

More About Acute and Chronic Back and Neck Pain

Back Pain Causes

It can be difficult to find the cause of chronic pain. Even with the use of the latest imaging and other types of tests, doctors often are not able to pinpoint the cause of back pain. On the flip side, many times imaging tests such as MRIs show problems in the spine of a patient who feels no back pain.

Back pain is rarely life-threatening. But if you have lost control of or have no feeling in your bowels or bladder, if your legs are growing progressively weaker and/or if you can't feel anything in your seat (if you were in a saddle), seek medical attention immediately.

Sources:

Deyo, R., & Weinstein, J. (2001). "Low Back Pain". New England Journal of Medicine, 344, Retrieved February 19, 2007.

"Adult Low Back Pain". Institute for Clinical Systems Improvement (ICSI), (June 1994 rev. Sept. 2006). Retrieved February 28, 2007, from National Guideline Clearinghouse Web site.

"Low Back Pain Fact Sheet". National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). Retrieved: June 15, 2006.

"Lost-worktime Injuries and Illnesses: Characteristics and Resulting Time Away From Work". 2005. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved: June 15, 2006.

Cassidy, J., Cote, P., Carroll, L., & Kristman, V. (2005). "Incidence and Course of Low Back Pain in Episodes in the General Population". Spine, 30(24), Retrieved: March 5 2007.

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