Disabled World: Revised/Updated: 2019/01/02
Synopsis: Information on the treatment and causes of back pain including strained back sports injuries and sciatica.
Back pain is a common complaint. Most people will experience lower back pain at least once during their lives. Back pain is also one of the most common reasons people go to the doctor or miss work. Most back pain gradually improves with home treatment and self-care. Although the pain may take several weeks to disappear completely, you should notice some improvement within the first 72 hours of self-care. If not, see your doctor.
Back pain usually originates from the muscles, nerves, bones, joints or other structures in the spine. The onset of back pain may be acute or chronic. It can be constant or intermittent, stay in one place or radiate to other areas. It may be characterized by a dull ache, or a sharp or piercing or burning sensation. Back pain may be classified by various methods to aid its diagnosis and management. The anatomic classification of back pain follows the segments of the spine: cervical, thoracic, lumbar or sacral.
Many people have experienced some form of back pain at some point in their lives. There are many causes of back pain, from self-inflicted causes due to bad habits, to back pain caused by muscle strains, accidents, or sports injuries. Despite the causes of the back pain a person experiences, the symptoms may be the same.
Symptoms people with back pain experience might include:
If you experience back pain, it is important to contact a doctor if you:
A doctor will test your range of motion in relation to the back pain you are experiencing, unless you are completely immobilized by a back injury, and test for both areas of discomfort and nerve function. The doctor will most likely do some tests such as urine and blood testing in order to determine whether the back pain is due to either an infection or a systemic problem. X-rays may be taken to determine if you have any broken bones or skeletal issues that are the cause of your back pain; they can also help to locate issues with connective tissues. Soft-tissue damages that may be the cause of back pain can be analyzed using Computed Tomography (CT) or Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans. Nerve and muscle damage can be determined through Electromygram (EMG) tests.
Illustration of a person in pain holding the middle of their back.
Back pain can be caused by a variety of things, and treating back pain involves the goals of both pain relief and restoration of movement. The basic treatment for back pain that has been caused by either a strain or a minor injury is rest. Application of an ice pack to the affected area can be helpful, as well as either Aspirin or use of a Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug (NSAID). Once the inflammation related to this kind of back pain has diminished, application of heat can help to soothe both muscles and connective tissues.
Long-term bed rest is something that is not considered to be necessary for the majority of people who are experiencing back pain; in fact - it may be harmful, as well as making the recovery process more lengthy and presenting the possibility for new problems. For most people who are experiencing back pain; normal, non-strenuous activities like walking are recommended within twenty-four to seventy-two hours. After this period of time, the person should pursue controlled physical therapy or exercise.
Physical therapy treatments may include:
The process of strengthening your back and abdominal muscles through both physical therapy and exercise helps to stabilize your spine. Learning how to perform proper lifting techniques and do gentle stretching exercises, as well as how to maintain good posture, can help you to prevent further back injuries.
If the back pain you experience keeps you from your common daily activities, a doctor might help you by either recommending or prescribing some pain medications. There are a number of over-the-counter pain medications such as Aspirin, Ibuprofen, or Tylenol that can help with back pain. If the back pain you are experiencing is severe, a doctor may prescribe something like either Percocet or Vicodin instead; some doctors may prescribe muscle relaxers. The effects of medications such as Vicodin and Percocet are on the brain, not on the muscles, and can cause drowsiness; care is needed when taking these kinds of medications. If your doctor cannot help you to control your back pain, they may refer you to a back or pain specialist.
A back or pain specialist might use things such as steroids, injections, or anesthetics in order to help you control back pain. There are some newer treatments that have been developed, such as Radiofrequency Ablation, which involves delivery of electrical stimulation to specific nerves in order to make them less sensitive to pain or actually destroy nerves with the intention of preventing pain, that may help. There is another procedure that delivers heat to a herniated disc that can shrink the disc so it no longer bulges onto a nerve root and cause pain. Medications from the antidepressant and anti-convulsant families are sometimes prescribed to assist with pain relief in association with irritated nerves.
Sciatica is a common form of pain that affects the sciatic nerve. The sciatic nerve extends from the lower back down through the back of each leg. Sciatica is caused by irritation of the roots of the lower lumbar and lumosacral spine. There are other causes of sciatica, including Lumbar Spinal Stenosis, Degenerative Disc Disease, and Spondylolisthesis.
The symptoms of sciatica include:
Sciatica commonly affects only one side of a person's lower body. Many times the pain will extend from the person's lower back all the way through the back of their thigh and down through one of their legs. The pain the person experiences may also extend to one of their feet or into their toes, depending on where the sciatic nerve is affected. The pain some people experience in relation to sciatica can be both severe and debilitating. Other people who experience sciatica find the associated pain to be infrequent and irritating; the pain they experience has the potential to worsen. For people who have sciatica, it is important to contact a doctor if symptoms worsen, lower extremity weakness increases, or they experience loss of bladder or bowel control.
Other things that may make your back pain worse include being overweight, not exercising regularly, wearing high heels, or sleeping on a mattress that is too soft.
Cauda equina syndrome is a rare disorder that usually is a surgical emergency. In patients with cauda equina syndrome, something compresses on the spinal nerve roots. You may need fast treatment to prevent lasting damage leading to incontinence and possibly permanent paralysis of the legs. CES affects nerve roots called cauda equina. These nerves are located at the lower end of the spinal cord in the lumbosacral spine. They send and receive messages to and from your legs, feet, and pelvic organs. CES occurs more often in adults than in children. But it can occur in children who have a spinal birth defect or have had a spinal injury.