What Is Back Pain?

Everyone has experienced back pain and back problems at some point in their life — whether it be lower back pain or a strain of the neck. In fact, back pain is so common that it is one of the most frequent physical complaints and causes for missing work among American adults.

Specifically, back pain can refer to herniated discs, fractures, and more commonly, sore muscles, tendons and ligaments. Typically, back pain isn’t caused by an acute event, but rather develops over time — sometimes years. And while back pain doesn’t often require immediate medical treatment, prolonged or difficult cases will definitely warrant a doctor’s visit.

Back pain can be divided anatomically: neck pain, middle back pain, lower back pain or tailbone pain.

The Spinal Column

A healthy spine is S-shaped when viewed from the side. It curves back at the shoulders and inward at the neck and small of the back. It’s the body’s main structural support. It also houses and protects the spinal cord, the intricate network of nerves that runs through the vertebrae to transmit feeling and control movement throughout the entire body.

What Causes Back Pain?

Back pain ranks high on the list of self-inflicted ailments. Most of our back troubles happen because of bad habits, generally developed over a long period of time. These bad back habits include:

  • Poor posture
  • Overexertion in work and play
  • Sitting incorrectly at the desk or at the steering wheel
  • Pushing, pulling, and lifting things carelessly

Sometimes, the effects are immediate, but in many cases back problems develop over time. One of the more common types of back pain comes from straining the bands of muscles surrounding the spine. Although such strains can occur anywhere along the spine, they happen most often in the curve of the lower back. The next most common place is at the base of the neck.

Sometimes backaches occur for no apparent reason. This is called nonspecific backache. It may develop from weakened muscles that cannot handle everyday walking, bending, and stretching. In other cases, back pain may come from an injury involving pulling or twisting or some kind of overuse or repetitive damage.

There are several potential sources and causes of back pain. However, the diagnosis of specific tissues of the spine as the cause of pain presents problems. This is because symptoms arising from different spinal tissues can feel very similar and is difficult to differentiate without the use of invasive diagnostic intervention procedures, such as local anesthetic blocks.

One potential source of back pain is skeletal muscle of the back. Potential causes of pain in muscle tissue include muscle strains (pulled muscles), muscle spasm, and muscle imbalances. However, imaging studies do not support the notion of muscle tissue damage in many back pain cases, and the neurophysiology of muscle spasm and muscle imbalances is not well understood