Chances are you will experience back pain at some point or another in your life, whether it be from overexertion, an injury, accident or age. For many, especially younger individuals, back pain is just a temporary inconvenience as you rest and recover. But what if you have more days with back pain than not? Additionally, what if it keeps you from doing the things you love or need to do either because you’re in too much pain to even do the activity or you know the pain will completely sideline you for days if you do participate?
If this has you wondering when back pain is bad enough to see a doctor — or if you can tough it out with home treatment — you’re not alone. Back problems are among patients’ most frequent complaints to their doctors. Nearly 65 million Americans report a recent episode of back pain, while 8 percent of all adults experience persistent or chronic back pain, and as a result are limited in certain everyday activities.
But in a survey by the American Physical Therapy Association, 37 percent of respondents noted they have not sought out professional help for pain relief.
So should you accept daily back pain as a fact of life, or is there something you can do about it? First you have to understand what causes back pain, says Carson Fairbanks, M.D., an orthopedic spine surgeon on the medical staff at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Southwest Fort Worth and Texas Health Clearfork.
Common Causes of Back Pain
Most people notice back pain between the ages of 40 and 60 years old. However, Fairbanks notes that you may start to experience back pain as early as your 20’s and 30’s.
While aches and pains every now and then are to be expected, especially after an increase (or drastic decrease) in activity, there are three main culprits that are associated with back pain: arthritis, degenerative disc conditions, spinal stenosis.
While you may think of arthritis more commonly in regard to knee or hip pain, it can occur anywhere in your body where two joints meet.
“There are two joints at every bone in your back that connect one bone to another,” Fairbanks explains. “These joints are just like all the other joints in your body as they have cartilage and joint fluid. And just like every other joint in the body these joints can have wear and tear arthritis, also known as osteoarthritis.”
The inflammation caused by arthritis in these joints tends to cause back pain that is worse first thing in the morning and associated with stiffness. Appropriately, the pain associated with osteoarthritis is often relieved by getting up and moving around, or using a heating pad to loosen things up.
Back pain associated with arthritis is most commonly seen in individuals between the ages of 40 and 60.
Unlike arthritis which can occur all over the body, degenerative disc conditions can only occur in your spine and neck. Discs are the soft cushions in between the bones of the spine that allow motion and compression. Unfortunately, discs can rupture and cause irritation of the nerves in the spine from direct pressure.
“Disc themselves also have small sensory nerves in them and if they are damaged it can cause back pain without pressure on the big nerves in the spine,” Fairbanks adds.
Back pain associated with disc conditions is most commonly seen in individuals between the ages of 40 and 60, but can also be seen in the 20- to 40-year-old crowd when associated with postural dysfunction, or in laymen’s terms, bad posture.
Spinal stenosis occurs when there’s a narrowing of the spinal canal that crowds the nerves and puts pressure on the spinal cord. This can be caused by disc herniations, arthritis, bone spurs, tumors or instability in the spine.
Back pain associated with spinal stenosis is most commonly seen in individuals in the 60-plus age range.
When to See a Doctor
Many of these conditions present with more symptoms than just pain, which can help your doctor pinpoint the condition. But there are other, less common conditions that can cause concern, such as tumors, fractures or infections.
You should always see a physician if you have these symptoms in addition to back or neck pain:
- Unexplained weight loss
- Increased pain at night
- Bladder or bowel incontinence
- Pain that shoots down the legs
- Numbness or tingling
- Severe pain that doesn’t improve after rest
- Pain that occurs after you’ve fallen or experienced an injury
Even if you don’t experience these symptoms, there’s no harm in seeing a physician for your back pain, especially if it’s affecting your quality of life or your ability to work.
Things You Can Do to Avoid Back Pain
There are things everyone can do to help avoid back pain at all stages of life. For starters, maintaining a healthy weight is incredibly important. For every pound of body weight, 4 pounds of pressure is transferred to the musculoskeletal system when walking. That number increases to 8 pounds of pressure when running.
“So when you think about losing 10 pounds, you’re really reducing 40 pounds of pressure on your body when walking,” Fairbanks says.
Secondly, staying active, exercising, and focusing on core strength and posture is incredibly important. Low impact activities such as walking, jogging, aerobics, yoga and Pilates have been shown to be very effective in increasing core strength, improving cardiovascular health and keeping weight in a healthy range.
Good posture, experts agree, is also a good way to avoid back pain:
If you have chronic back or spine pain, you may be hesitant to seek care out of fear that surgery will be the first and only option suggested. It’s a common concern. There are various treatment options to consider, and a back and spine specialist can put together a treatment plan that works best for you.
“Back and neck pain may not be completely avoidable at times, but many causes of pain have treatment options that can significantly improve pain and function,” Fairbanks says. “Your physician may prescribe home exercise, formal physical therapy, weight loss, medications, spinal injections, or surgery depending on the severity, the cause, and your wishes.”
Ready to schedule an appointment? Find a back and spine specialist on the medical staff near you.