back pain

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What is Back Pain?


Back pain is a problem that can range from a dull, constant ache to a sudden, sharp pain that leaves you incapacitated. It can come on suddenly from an accident, a fall, or lifting something too heavy or it can develop slowly, perhaps as the result of age-related changes to the spine. Regardless of how back pain happens or how it feels, you know it when you have back pain. And chances are, if you don't have it now, you will eventually.

At some point, back pain affects an estimated eight in ten people. Although anyone can have back pain, a number of factors increase your risk. They include your age, fitness level, diet, hereditary and race. The first attack of low back pain typically occurs between the ages of thirty and forty. Back pain becomes more common with age. Back pain is more common among people who are not physically fit. Weak back and abdominal muscles may not properly support the spine. Studies show that low-impact aerobic exercise is good for the discs that cushion the vertebrae, the individual bones that make up the spine. A diet high in calories and fat, combined with an inactive lifestyle, can lead to obesity, which can put stress on the back. Some causes of back pain, including disc disease, may have a genetic component. Race can be a factor in back problems. African American women, for example, are two to three times more likely than white women to develop spondylolisthesis, a condition in which a vertebra of the lower spine also called the lumbar spine slips out of place.

Many diseases can cause or contribute to back pain. These include various forms of arthritis, such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and ankylosing spondylitis, and cancers elsewhere in the body that may spread to the spine. Having a job that requires heavy lifting, pushing, or pulling, particularly when this involves twisting or vibrating the spine, can lead to injury and back pain. An inactive job or a desk job may also lead to or contribute to pain, especially if you have poor posture or sit all day in an uncomfortable chair.

Acute Back Pain: Acute back pain usually gets better on its own and without treatment, although you may want to try acetaminophen, aspirin, or ibuprofen to help ease the pain. Perhaps the best advice is to go about your usual activities as much as you can with the assurance that the problem will clear up. Getting up and moving around can help ease stiffness, relieve pain, and have you back doing your regular activities sooner. Exercises or surgery are not usually advisable for acute back pain.

Chronic Back Pain: Treatment for chronic back pain falls into two basic categories: the kind that requires an operation and the kind that does not. In the vast majority of cases, back pain does not require surgery. Doctors will nearly always try nonsurgical treatments before recommending surgery. In a very small percentage of cases when back pain is caused by a tumor, an infection, or a nerve root problem called cauda equina syndrome, for example prompt surgery is necessary to ease the pain and prevent further problems.


References and Sources: Medline, Pubmed, National Institutes of Health.


last update: April 2009


This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. You should not use this material to diagnose or treat a health condition or disease without consulting with your healthcare provider.
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