What Is Back Pain?
Back pain is an all-too-familiar 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.
- How Common Is Back Pain?
- What Are the Risk Factors for Back Pain?
- What Are the Causes of Back Pain?
- Can Back Pain Be Prevented?
- When Should I See a Doctor for Pain?
- Which Type of Doctor Should I See?
- How Is Back Pain Diagnosed?
- What Is the Difference Between Acute and Chronic Pain?
- How Is Back Pain Treated?
- What Kind of Research Is Being Done?
- For More Information
How Common Is Back Pain?
At some point, back pain affects an estimated 8 in 10 people. It is one of our society's most common medical problems.
What Are the Risk Factors for Back Pain?
Although anyone can have
back pain, a number of
factors increase your risk.
Age: The first attack of low back pain typically occurs between the ages of 30 and 40. Back pain becomes more common with age.
Fitness level: Back pain is more common among people who are not physically fit. Weak back and abdominal muscles may not properly support the spine. "Weekend warriors" – people who go out and exercise a lot after being inactive all week – are more likely to suffer painful back injuries than people who make moderate physical activity a daily habit. Studies show that low-impact aerobic exercise is good for the discs that cushion the vertebrae, the individual bones that make up the spine.
Diet: A diet high in calories and fat, combined with an inactive lifestyle, can lead to obesity, which can put stress on the back.
Heredity: Some causes of back pain, including disc disease, may have a genetic component.
Race: 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.
Side View of Spine
The presence of other diseases: 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.
Occupational risk factors: 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.
Cigarette smoking: Although smoking may not directly cause back pain, it increases your risk of developing low back pain and low back pain with sciatica. (Sciatica is back pain that radiates to the hip or leg due to pressure on a nerve.) For example, smoking may lead to pain by blocking your body's ability to deliver nutrients to the discs of the lower back. Or repeated coughing due to heavy smoking may cause back pain. It is also possible that smokers are just less physically fit or less healthy than nonsmokers, which increases the likelihood that they will develop back pain. Furthermore, smoking can slow healing, prolonging pain for people who have had back injuries, back surgery, or broken bones.
What Are the Causes of Back Pain?
It is important to understand that back pain is a symptom of a medical condition, not a diagnosis itself. Medical problems that can cause back pain include the following:
A mechanical problem is
a problem with the way
your spine moves or the
way you feel when you
move your spine in
certain ways. Perhaps
the most common
mechanical cause of back
pain is a condition
disc degeneration, which
simply means that the
discs located between
the vertebrae of the
spine are breaking down
with age. As they
deteriorate, they lose
ability. This problem
can lead to pain if the
back is stressed. Other
mechanical causes of
back pain include
spasms, muscle tension,
and ruptured discs,
which are also called
Injuries: Spine injuries such as sprains and fractures can cause either short-lived or chronic pain. Sprains are tears in the ligaments that support the spine, and they can occur from twisting or lifting improperly. Fractured vertebrae are often the result of osteoporosis, a condition that causes weak, porous bones. Less commonly, back pain may be caused by more severe injuries that result from accidents or falls.
Acquired conditions and diseases: Many medical problems can cause or contribute to back pain. They include scoliosis, which causes curvature of the spine and does not usually cause pain until middle age; spondylolisthesis; various forms of arthritis, including osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and ankylosing spondylitis; and spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal column that puts pressure on the spinal cord and nerves. Although osteoporosis itself is not painful, it can lead to painful fractures of the vertebrae. Other causes of back pain include pregnancy; kidney stones or infections; endometriosis, which is the buildup of uterine tissue in places outside the uterus; and fibromyalgia, which causes fatigue and widespread muscle pain.
Infections and tumors: Although they are not common causes of back pain, infections can cause pain when they involve the vertebrae, a condition called osteomyelitis, or when they involve the discs that cushion the vertebrae, which is called discitis. Tumors also are relatively rare causes of back pain. Occasionally, tumors begin in the back, but more often they appear in the back as a result of cancer that has spread from elsewhere in the body.
Although the causes of back pain are usually physical, emotional stress can play a role in how severe pain is and how long it lasts. Stress can affect the body in many ways, including causing back muscles to become tense and painful.
Can Back Pain Be Prevented?
One of the best things you can do to prevent back pain is to exercise regularly and keep your back muscles strong. Four specific types of exercises are described in "How Is Back Pain Treated?". All may help you avoid injury and pain. Exercises that increase balance and strength can decrease your risk of falling and injuring your back or breaking bones. Exercises such as tai chi and yoga – or any weight-bearing exercise that challenges your balance – are good ones to try.
Eating a healthy diet also is important. For one thing, eating to maintain a healthy weight – or to lose weight, if you are overweight – helps you avoid putting unnecessary and injury-causing stress and strain on your back. To keep your spine strong, as with all bones, you need to get enough calcium and vitamin D every day. These nutrients help prevent osteoporosis, which is responsible for a lot of the bone fractures that lead to back pain. Calcium is found in dairy products; green, leafy vegetables; and fortified products, like orange juice. Your skin makes vitamin D when you are in the sun. If you are not outside much, you can obtain vitamin D from your diet: nearly all milk and some other foods are fortified with this nutrient. Most adults don't get enough calcium and vitamin D, so talk to your doctor about how much you need per day, and consider taking a nutritional supplement or a multivitamin.
Practicing good posture, supporting your back properly, and avoiding heavy lifting when you can may all help you prevent injury. If you do lift something heavy, keep your back straight. Don't bend over the item; instead, lift it by putting the stress on your legs and hips.
When Should I See a Doctor for Pain?
In most cases, it is not necessary to see a doctor for back pain because pain usually goes away with or without treatment. However, a trip to the doctor is probably a good idea if you have numbness or tingling, if your pain is severe and doesn't improve with medication and rest, or if you have pain after a fall or an injury. It is also important to see your doctor if you have pain along with any of the following problems: trouble urinating; weakness, pain, or numbness in your legs; fever; or unintentional weight loss. Such symptoms could signal a serious problem that requires treatment soon.
Which Type of Doctor Should I See?
Many different types of doctors treat back pain, from family physicians to doctors who specialize in disorders of the nerves and musculoskeletal system. In most cases, it's best to see your primary care doctor first. In many cases, he or she can treat the problem. In other cases, your doctor may refer you to an appropriate specialist.
How Is Back Pain Diagnosed?
Diagnosing the cause of back pain requires a medical history and a physical exam. If necessary, your doctor may also order medical tests, which may include x rays.
During the medical history, your doctor will ask questions about the nature of your pain and about any health problems you and close family members have or have had. Questions might include the following:
- Have you fallen or injured your back recently?
- Does your back feel better – or hurt worse – when you lie down?
- Are there any activities or positions that ease or aggravate pain?
- Is your pain worse or better at a certain time of day?
- Do you or any family members have arthritis or other diseases that might affect the spine?
- Have you had back surgery or back pain before?
- Do you have pain, numbness, or tingling down one or both legs?
During the physical exam, your doctor may:
- watch you stand and walk
- check your reflexes to look for slowed or heightened reflexes, either of which might suggest nerve problems
- check for fibromyalgia by examining your back for tender points, which are points on the body that are painful when pressure is applied to them
- check for muscle strength and sensation
- check for signs of nerve root irritation.
Often a doctor can find the cause of your pain with a physical and medical history alone. However, depending on what the history and exam show, your doctor may order medical tests to help find the cause.
Following are some tests your doctor may order:
- X rays:
Traditional x rays use
low levels of radiation
to project a picture
onto a piece of film
(some newer x rays use
techniques). They are
often used to view the
bones and bony
structures in the body.
Your doctor may order an
x ray if he or she
suspects that you have a
osteoarthritis, or that
your spine is not
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): MRI uses a strong magnetic force instead of radiation to create an image. Unlike an x ray, which shows only bony structures, an MRI scan produces clear pictures of soft tissues, too, such as ligaments, tendons, and blood vessels. Your doctor may order an MRI scan if he or she suspects a problem such as an infection, tumor, inflammation, or pressure on a nerve. An MRI scan, in most instances, is not necessary during the early phases of low back pain unless your doctor identifies certain "red flags" in your history and physical exam. An MRI scan is needed if the pain persists more than 3 to 6 weeks or if your doctor feels there may be a need for surgical consultation. Because most low back pain goes away on its own, getting an MRI scan too early may sometimes create confusion for the patient and the doctor.
Computed tomography (CT) scan: A CT scan allows your doctor to see spinal structures that cannot be seen on traditional x rays. A computer creates a three-dimensional image from a series of two-dimensional pictures that it takes of your back. Your doctor may order a CT scan to look for problems including herniated discs, tumors, or spinal stenosis.
Blood tests: Although blood tests are not used generally in diagnosing the cause of back pain, your doctor may order them in some cases. Blood tests that might be used include the following:
- Complete blood count (CBC), which could point to problems such as infection or inflammation
- Erythrocyte sedimentation rate (also called sed rate), a measure of inflammation that may suggest infection. The presence of inflammation may also suggest some forms of arthritis or, in rare cases, a tumor.
It is important to understand that medical tests alone may not diagnose the cause of back pain. In fact, experts say that up to 90 percent of all MRI scans of the spine show some type of abnormality, and sometimes the x rays and CT scans of people without pain show problems. Similarly, even some healthy pain-free people can have elevated sed rates.
Only with a medical history and exam - and sometimes medical tests - can a doctor diagnose the cause of back pain. Many times, the precise cause of back pain is never known. In these cases, it may be comforting to know that most back pain gets better whether or not you find out what is causing it.
What Is the Difference Between Acute and Chronic Pain?
Pain that hits you suddenly – after falling from a ladder, being tackled on the football field, or lifting a load that is just too heavy, for example – is acute pain. Acute pain comes on quickly and often leaves just as quickly. To be classified as acute, pain should last no longer than 6 weeks. Acute pain is the most common type of back pain.
Chronic pain, on the other hand, may come on either quickly or slowly, and it lingers a long time. In general, pain that lasts more than 3 months is considered chronic. Chronic pain is much less common than acute pain.
How Is Back Pain Treated?
Treatment for back pain generally depends on what kind of pain you experience: acute or chronic.
Acute back pain usually
gets better on its own
and without treatment,
although you may want to
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
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.
Following are some of the more commonly used treatments for chronic back pain.
- Hot or
or cold packs – or
sometimes a combination
of the two – can be
soothing to chronically
sore, stiff backs. Heat
dilates the blood
vessels, both improving
the supply of oxygen
that the blood takes to
the back and reducing
muscle spasms. Heat also
alters the sensation of
pain. Cold may reduce
decreasing the size of
blood vessels and the
flow of blood to the
area. Although cold may
feel painful against the
skin, it numbs deep
pain. Applying heat or
cold may relieve pain,
but it does not cure the
cause of chronic back
Exercise: Although exercise is usually not advisable for acute back pain, proper exercise can help ease chronic pain and perhaps reduce the risk of it returning. The following four types of exercise are important to general physical fitness and may be helpful for certain specific causes of back pain:
The purposes of
which are exercises
in which you bend
forward, are to (1)
widen the spaces
reducing pressure on
the nerves; (2)
stretch muscles of
the back and hips;
and (3) strengthen
Many doctors think
the muscles of the
abdomen will reduce
the load on the
spine. One word
of caution: If your
back pain is caused
by a herniated disc,
check with your
they may increase
pressure within the
discs, making the
Extension: With extension exercises, you bend backward. They may minimize radiating pain, which is pain you can feel in other parts of the body besides where it originates. Examples of extension exercises are leg lifting and raising the trunk, each exercise performed while lying prone. The theory behind these exercises is that they open up the spinal canal in places and develop muscles that support the spine.
Stretching: The goal of stretching exercises, as their name suggests, is to stretch and improve the extension of muscles and other soft tissues of the back. This can reduce back stiffness and improve range of motion.
Aerobic: Aerobic exercise is the type that gets your heart pumping faster and keeps your heart rate elevated for a while. For fitness, it is important to get at least 30 minutes of aerobic (also called cardiovascular) exercise three times a week. Aerobic exercises work the large muscles of the body and include brisk walking, jogging, and swimming. For back problems, you should avoid exercise that requires twisting or vigorous forward flexion, such as aerobic dancing and rowing, because these actions may raise pressure in the discs and actually do more harm than good. In addition, avoid high-impact activities if you have disc disease. If back pain or your fitness level make it impossible to exercise 30 minutes at a time, try three 10-minute sessions to start with and work up to your goal. But first, speak with your doctor or physical therapist about the safest aerobic exercise for you.
Medications: A wide range of medications are used to treat chronic back pain. Some are available over the counter. Others require a doctor's prescription. The following are the main types of medications used for back pain.
relieve pain. They
and aspirin, as well
narcotics, such as
are the most
only be used for a
short time for
severe pain or pain
People with muscular
back pain or
arthritis pain that
is not relieved by
medications may find
and salves are
rubbed directly onto
the skin over the
site of pain. They
use one or more of a
ingredients to ease
such products as
Zostrix, Icy Hot,
1 Brand names included in this booklet are provided as examples only, and their inclusion does not mean that these products are endorsed by the National Institutes of Health or any other Government agency. Also, if a particular brand name is not mentioned, this does not mean or imply that the product is unsatisfactory.
NSAIDs: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are drugs that relieve pain and inflammation, both of which may play a role in some cases of back pain. NSAIDs include the nonprescription products ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil), ketoprofen (Actron, Orudis KT), and naproxen sodium (Aleve). More than a dozen others, including a subclass of NSAIDs called COX-2 inhibitors, are available only with a prescription.
All NSAIDs work similarly – by blocking substances called prostaglandins that contribute to inflammation and pain. However, each NSAID is a different chemical, and each has a slightly different effect on the body.2
2Warning: NSAIDs can cause stomach irritation or, less often, they can affect kidney function. The longer a person uses NSAIDs, the more likely he or she is to have side effects, ranging from mild to serious. Many other drugs cannot be taken when a patient is being treated with NSAIDs because NSAIDs alter the way the body uses or eliminates these other drugs. Check with your health care provider or pharmacist before you take NSAIDs. Also, NSAIDs sometimes are associated with serious gastrointestinal problems, including ulcers, bleeding, and perforation of the stomach or intestine. People age 65 and older and those with any history of ulcers or gastrointestinal bleeding should use NSAIDs with caution.
Side effects of all NSAIDs can include stomach upset and stomach ulcers, heartburn, diarrhea, and fluid retention; however, COX-2 inhibitors are designed to cause fewer stomach ulcers. For unknown reasons, some people seem to respond better to one NSAID than another. It’s important to work with your doctor to choose the one that’s safest and most effective for you.
Other medications: Muscle relaxants and certain antidepressants have also been prescribed for chronic back pain, but their usefulness is questionable.
Traction: Traction involves using pulleys and weights to stretch the back. The rationale behind traction is to pull the vertebrae apart to allow a bulging disc to slip back into place. Some people experience pain relief while in traction, but that relief is usually temporary. Once traction is released, the stretch is not sustained and back pain is likely to return. There is no scientific evidence that traction provides any long-term benefits for people with back pain.
Corsets and braces: Corsets and braces include a number of devices, such as elastic bands and stiff supports with metal stays, that are designed to limit the motion of the lumbar spine, provide abdominal support, and correct posture. Although these may be appropriate after certain kinds of surgery, there is little, if any, evidence that corsets and braces help treat chronic low back pain. In fact, by keeping you from using your back muscles, they may actually cause more problems than they solve by causing lower back muscles to weaken from lack of use.
Behavioral modification: Developing a healthy attitude and learning to move your body properly while you do daily activities – particularly those involving heavy lifting, pushing, or pulling – are sometimes part of the treatment plan for people with back pain. Other behavior changes that might help pain include adopting healthy habits, such as exercise, relaxation, and regular sleep, and dropping bad habits, such as smoking and eating poorly.
Injections: When medications and other nonsurgical treatments fail to relieve chronic back pain, doctors may recommend injections for pain relief. Following are some of the most commonly used injections, although some are of questionable value:
If a nerve is
compressed as it
passes from the
injection called a
nerve root block may
be used to help ease
the resulting back
and leg pain. The
injection contains a
or anesthetic and is
administered to the
affected part of the
the procedure helps
or not depends on
the right nerve.
Facet joint injections: The facet joints are those where the vertebrae connect to one another, keeping the spine aligned. Although arthritis in the facet joints themselves is rarely the source of back pain, the injection of anesthetics or steroid medications into facet joints is sometimes tried as a way to relieve pain. The effectiveness of these injections is questionable. One study suggests that this treatment is overused and ineffective.
Trigger point injections: In this procedure, an anesthetic is injected into specific areas in the back that are painful when the doctor applies pressure to them. Some doctors add a steroid medication to the injection. Although the injections are commonly used, researchers have found that injecting anesthetics or steroids into trigger points provides no more relief than "dry needling" (inserting a needle and not injecting a medication).
Prolotherapy: One of the most talked about procedures for back pain, prolotherapy is a treatment in which a practitioner injects a sugar solution or other irritating substance into trigger points along the periosteum (the tough, fibrous tissue covering the bones) to trigger an inflammatory response that promotes the growth of dense, fibrous tissue. The theory behind prolotherapy is that such tissue growth strengthens the attachment of tendons and ligaments whose loosening has contributed to back pain. As yet, studies have not verified the effectiveness of prolotherapy. The procedure is used primarily by chiropractors and osteopathic doctors.
Complementary and alternative treatments: When back pain becomes chronic or when medications and other conventional therapies do not relieve it, many people try complementary and alternative treatments. Although such therapies won't cure diseases or repair the injuries that cause pain, some people find them useful for managing or relieving pain. Following are some of the most commonly used complementary therapies.
refers to procedures
their hands to
stimulate the spine
tissues. This type
of therapy is often
It tends to be most
effective in people
pain and when used
is not appropriate
if you have a
medical problem such
arthritis (such as
arthritis) or if you
medications such as
Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS): TENS involves wearing a small box over the painful area that directs mild electrical impulses to nerves there. The theory is that stimulating the nervous system can modify the perception of pain. Early studies of TENS suggested it could elevate the levels of endorphins, the body's natural pain-numbing chemicals, in the spinal fluid. But subsequent studies of its effectiveness against pain have produced mixed results.
Acupuncture: This ancient Chinese practice has been gaining increasing acceptance and popularity in the United States. Acupuncture is based on the theory that a life force called Qi (pronounced chee) flows through the body along certain channels, which if blocked can cause illness. According to the theory, the insertion of thin needles at precise locations along these channels by practitioners can unblock the flow of Qi, relieving pain and restoring health.
Although few Western-trained doctors would agree with the concept of blocked Qi, some believe that inserting and then stimulating needles (by twisting or passing a low-voltage electrical current through them) may foster the production of the body's natural pain-numbing chemicals, such as endorphins, serotonin, and acetylcholine.
A consensus panel convened by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 1997 concluded that there is clear evidence this treatment is effective for some pain conditions, including postoperative dental pain. Although there is less convincing evidence to support using acupuncture for back pain and some other pain conditions, the panel concluded that acupuncture may be effective when used as part of a comprehensive treatment plan for low back pain, fibromyalgia, and several other conditions.
Acupressure: As with acupuncture, the theory behind acupressure is that it unblocks the flow of Qi. The difference between acupuncture and acupressure is that no needles are used in acupressure. Instead, a therapist applies pressure to points along the channels with his or her hands, elbows, or even feet. (In some cases, patients are taught to do their own acupressure.) Acupressure has not been well studied for back pain.
Rolfing: A type of massage, rolfing involves using strong pressure on deep tissues in the back to relieve tightness of the fascia, a sheath of tissue that covers the muscles, that can cause or contribute to back pain. The theory behind rolfing is that releasing muscles and tissues from the fascia enables the back to align itself properly. So far, the usefulness of rolfing for back pain has not been scientifically proven.
- Flexion: The purposes of flexion exercises, which are exercises in which you bend forward, are to (1) widen the spaces between the vertebrae, thereby reducing pressure on the nerves; (2) stretch muscles of the back and hips; and (3) strengthen abdominal and buttock muscles. Many doctors think that strengthening the muscles of the abdomen will reduce the load on the spine. One word of caution: If your back pain is caused by a herniated disc, check with your doctor before performing flexion exercises because they may increase pressure within the discs, making the problem worse.
Depending on the diagnosis, surgery may either be the first treatment of choice – although this is rare – or it is reserved for chronic back pain for which other treatments have failed. If you are in constant pain or if pain reoccurs frequently and interferes with your ability to sleep, to function at your job, or to perform daily activities, you may be a candidate for surgery.
In general, two groups of people may require surgery to treat their spinal problems. People in the first group have chronic low back pain and sciatica, and they are often diagnosed with a herniated disc, spinal stenosis, spondylolisthesis, or vertebral fractures with nerve involvement. People in the second group are those with only predominant low back pain (without leg pain). These are people with discogenic low back pain (degenerative disc disease), in which discs wear with age. Usually, the outcome of spine surgery is much more predictable in people with sciatica than in those with predominant low back pain.
Some of the diagnoses that may need surgery include:
In this potentially
painful problem, the
hard outer coating of
the discs, which are the
circular pieces of
connective tissue that
cushion the bones of the
spine, are damaged,
allowing the discs'
jelly-like center to
leak, irritating nearby
nerves. This causes
severe sciatica and
nerve pain down the leg.
A herniated disc is
sometimes called a
Spinal stenosis: Spinal stenosis is the narrowing of the spinal canal, through which the spinal cord and spinal nerves run.
It is often caused by the overgrowth of bone caused by osteoarthritis of the spine. Compression of the nerves caused by spinal stenosis can lead not only to pain, but also to numbness in the legs and the loss of bladder or bowel control. Patients may have difficulty walking any distances and may have severe pain in their legs along with numbness and tingling.
Spondylolisthesis: In this condition, a vertebra of the lumbar spine slips out of place. As the spine tries to stabilize itself, the joints between the slipped vertebra and adjacent vertebrae can become enlarged, pinching nerves as they exit the spinal column. Spondylolisthesis may cause not only low back pain but also severe sciatica leg pain.
Vertebral fractures: These fractures are caused by trauma to the vertebrae of the spine or by crumbling of the vertebrae resulting from osteoporosis. This causes mostly mechanical back pain, but it may also put pressure on the nerves, creating leg pain.
Discogenic low back pain (degenerative disc disease): Most people's discs degenerate over a lifetime, but in some, this aging process can become chronically painful, severely interfering with their quality of life.
Following are some of the most commonly performed back surgeries:
In this operation,
part of the lamina,
a portion of the
bone on the back of
the vertebrae, is
removed, as well as
a portion of a
herniated disc is
then removed through
the incision, which
may extend two or
Microdiscectomy: As with traditional discectomy, this procedure involves removing a herniated disc or damaged portion of a disc through an incision in the back. The difference is that the incision is much smaller and the doctor uses a magnifying microscope or lenses to locate the disc through the incision. The smaller incision may reduce pain and the disruption of tissues, and it reduces the size of the surgical scar. It appears to take about the same amount of time to recuperate from a microdiscectomy as from a traditional discectomy.
Laser surgery: Technological advances in recent decades have led to the use of lasers for operating on patients with herniated discs accompanied by lower back and leg pain. During this procedure, the surgeon inserts a needle in the disc that delivers a few bursts of laser energy to vaporize the tissue in the disc. This reduces its size and relieves pressure on the nerves. Although many patients return to daily activities within 3 to 5 days after laser surgery, pain relief may not be apparent until several weeks or even months after the surgery. The usefulness of laser discectomy is still being debated.
For Spinal Stenosis:
- Laminectomy: When narrowing of the spine compresses the nerve roots, causing pain or affecting sensation, doctors sometimes open up the spinal column with a procedure called a laminectomy. In a laminectomy, the doctor makes a large incision down the affected area of the spine and removes the lamina and any bone spurs, which are overgrowths of bone, that may have formed in the spinal canal as the result of osteoarthritis. The procedure is major surgery that requires a short hospital stay and physical therapy afterwards to help regain strength and mobility.
When a slipped
vertebra leads to
the enlargement of
described above) and
spinal fusion. In
spinal fusion, two
or more vertebrae
are joined together
using bone grafts,
screws, and rods to
stop slippage of the
Bone used for
grafting comes from
another area of the
body, usually the
hip or pelvis. In
some cases, donor
bone is used.
Although the surgery is generally successful, either type of graft has its drawbacks. Using your own bone means surgery at a second site on your body. With donor bone, there is a slight risk of disease transmission or rejection. In recent years, a new development has eliminated those risks for some people undergoing spinal fusion: proteins called bone morphogenic proteins are being used to stimulate bone generation, eliminating the need for grafts. The proteins are placed in the affected area of the spine, often in collagen putty or sponges.
Regardless of how spinal fusion is performed, the fused area of the spine becomes immobilized.
For Vertebral Osteoporotic Fractures3
When back pain is
caused by a
of a vertebra due to
trauma, doctors may
make a small
incision in the skin
over the affected
area and inject a
into the fractured
vertebra to relieve
pain and stabilize
the spine. The
on an outpatient
basis under a mild
3 Used only if standard care, rest, corsets and braces, and analgesics fail.
Kyphoplasty: Much like vertebroplasty, kyphoplasty is used to relieve pain and stabilize the spine following fractures due to osteoporosis. Kyphoplasty is a two-step process. In the first step, the doctor inserts a balloon device to help restore the height and shape of the spine. In the second step, he or she injects polymethylacrylate to repair the fractured vertebra. The procedure is done under anesthesia, and in some cases it is performed on an outpatient basis.
For Discogenic Low Back Pain (Degenerative Disc Disease)
One of the newest
and least invasive
therapies for low
back pain involves
inserting a heating
wire through a small
incision in the back
and into a disc. An
is then passed
through the wire to
collagen fibers that
hold the disc
procedure is done on
an outpatient basis,
often under local
usefulness of IDT is
Spinal fusion: When the degenerated disc is painful, the surgeon may recommend removing it and fusing the disc to help with the pain. This fusion can be done through the abdomen, a procedure known as anterior lumbar interbody fusion, or through the back, called posterior fusion. Theoretically, fusion surgery should eliminate the source of pain; the procedure is successful in about 60 to 70 percent of cases. Fusion for low back pain or any spinal surgeries should only be done as a last resort, and the patient should be fully informed of risks.
Disc replacement: When a disc is herniated, one alternative to a discectomy – in which the disc is simply removed – is removing the disc and replacing it with a synthetic disc. Replacing the damaged one with an artificial one restores disc height and movement between the vertebrae. Artificial discs come in several designs. Although doctors in Europe had performed disc replacement for more than a decade, the procedure had been experimental in the United States until the Food and Drug Administration approved the Charité artificial disc (http://www.fda.gov/cdrh/pdf4/p040006.html).
- Laminectomy/discectomy: In this operation, part of the lamina, a portion of the bone on the back of the vertebrae, is removed, as well as a portion of a ligament. The herniated disc is then removed through the incision, which may extend two or more inches.
What Kind of Research Is Being Done?
The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS) is currently supporting a number of studies to better understand and treat back pain. Goals of current research include the following:
effectiveness of surgery
treatment for low back
Although the percentage
of people having spinal
surgery in the United
States has increased
sharply over time, there
is not much information
on whether back surgery
is better than
One study is comparing
the most commonly used
surgical treatments to
the most commonly used
for three common back
discs of the lumbar
spine, spinal stenosis,
and spinal stenosis from
study, being conducted
at 12 medical centers,
will follow patients for
at least 24 months after
treatment to determine
the medical and
To identify the best treatments for certain patients with low back pain. Just as certain treatments are effective for some back problems and not others, the same treatment may be effective for some people and not others – even if those people have the same medical problem. Researchers at several centers will study more than 3,000 patients who have one of three common causes of back pain – herniated discs, spinal stenosis, and spondylolisthesis – and who respond well to specific treatments. Extensive testing and surveys will allow doctors to identify the best treatments for these patients.
To test the effectiveness of lumbar fusion and other treatments for disc-derived pain. Discogenic pain is low back pain due to the wearing away of a disc between the vertebrae. Although treatment for this condition is often lumbar spinal fusion, its effectiveness, as well as that of other treatments, has not been established. A new study will compare the results of spinal fusion with those of nonsurgical care for patients with similar disc degeneration. Researchers will also try to find out (1) what distinguishes people who choose surgery from those who do not; (2) the consequences of common complications of spinal fusion surgery and how often they occur; (3) what predicts a good response to surgical therapy but not to other treatments; and (4) what are the characteristics and outcomes of patients who have repeat back surgery for this condition.
To measure the frequency of complications in lumbar fusion surgery. Lumbar spinal fusion is a commonly performed procedure for several back problems, including disc degeneration, spondylolisthesis, spinal stenosis, and scoliosis, but the procedure can have complications. A new study will follow 1,000 people who have spinal fusion for one of these diagnoses to find out (1) how often complications occur after surgery, (2) how the rates of specific serious complications vary with different types of lumbar fusion, (3) the consequences of specific types of complications, and (4) the characteristics of treatments or patients that predict particularly severe complications. The information will help doctors better assess the benefits versus the risks of the procedure.
To better understand the relationship between the loss of motor control and low back pain. Compared to people without back problems, those with low back pain show losses in motor control, including problems with trunk muscle response and posture. Some researchers believe that losses in motor control may predispose people to falls that result in back pain. Other researchers think losses in motor control may result from damage sustained by tissue during a fall. To explore the relationship between motor control loss and back pain, scientists will study varsity athletes to determine whether poor motor control of the lumbar spine increases the risk of low back injury. They will also study changes in the lumbar spine motor control of people with low back pain after they complete rehabilitation programs that emphasize motor control training.
To develop and evaluate a psychosocial program for people with acute low back pain. Acute low back pain is a common problem that affects people's abilities to work and function, and it contributes to high health care costs. There are few studies, however, that prove whether or not a treatment truly reduces limitation and prevents the recurrence of pain. One new project will develop a program to enhance the social support and self-efficacy of people with acute low back pain. After developing and testing the program, researchers will evaluate its effectiveness by comparing the results of 160 participants with those of 160 people receiving usual care.
To evaluate the nervous system mechanisms of low back pain. Scientists think that when a disc ruptures, material leaking from its jelly-like filling leads to inflammation and the release of chemicals that irritate cells within the spinal canal. Scientists believe that the effects of these chemicals on the nerve endings in discs and adjacent tissue lead to low back pain, while the effects on dorsal nerve roots lead to sciatica. One study will test these ideas using a variety of techniques. A better understanding of pain mechanisms related to herniated discs will allow researchers to develop better treatments.
To evaluate an Internet-based patient education program. Patient education can play an important role in managing back pain. Yet taking part in an educational program can be difficult and time-consuming for some people, particularly if they live far from an area where such a program is offered. A study, conducted with patients recruited from Silicon Valley employers and the Internet, will test the effectiveness of an Internet-based education program. Participants will receive a book and videotape, and they will interact with other program participants through a moderated Internet discussion group. Patient assessments will also be conducted through the Internet.
For More Information
Institute of Arthritis
and Musculoskeletal and
Skin Diseases (NIAMS)
National Institutes of Health
1 AMS Circle
Bethesda, MD 20892–3675
Phone: 877–22–NIAMS (226–4267) (free of charge)
and Stroke (NINDS)
NIH Neurological Institute
P.O. Box 5801
Bethesda, MD 20824
Phone: 301–496–5751 or 800–352–9424 (free of charge)
Center for Complementary
and Alternative Medicine
National Institutes of Health
P.O. Box 7923
Gaithersburg, MD 20898–7923
Phone: 888–644–6226 (free of charge)
TTY: 866–464–3615 (free of charge)
Fax: 866–464–3616 (free of charge)
- Agency for
Healthcare Research and
Office of Communications and Knowledge Transfer
540 Gaither Road, Suite 2000
Rockville, MD 20850
Occupational Safety and
4676 Columbia Parkway
Cincinnati, OH 45226
Phone: 800–CDC–INFO (232–4636) (free of charge)
Academy of Orthopaedic
P.O. Box 2058
Des Plaines, IL 60017
Phone: 800–824–BONE (2663) (free of charge)
American Spine Society
(part of AAOS)
7075 Veterans Boulevard
Burr Ridge, IL 60527
Phone: 630–230–3600 or 866–960–6277 (free of charge)
College of Rheumatology
1800 Century Place, Suite 250
Atlanta, GA 30345–4300
P.O. Box 7669
Atlanta, GA 30357–0669
Phone: 404–872–7100 or 800–283–7800 (free of charge) or call your local chapter (to find your local chapter, check your phone directory or visit the foundation’s Web site).
1701 Clarendon Boulevard
Arlington, VA 22209
Phone: 703–276–8800 or 800–621–1773 (free of charge)
142 East Ontario Street
Chicago, IL 60611
Phone: 312–202–8000 or 800–621–1773 (free of charge)
– an ancient Chinese
practice that involves
inserting thin needles
at various sites on the
body to relieve pain or
influence other body
doctors use acupuncture
for problems as diverse
as addiction, morning
sickness, and back pain.
Acute pain – the most common type of back pain. Acute pain often begins suddenly – after a fall or injury, for example – and lasts no longer than 6 weeks.
Analgesics – medications designed to relieve pain. Analgesics used for back pain include both prescription and over-the-counter products. Some are made to be taken orally, and others are rubbed onto the skin.
Ankylosing spondylitis – a form of arthritis that affects the spine, the sacroiliac joints, and sometimes the hips and shoulders. In severe cases, the joints of the spine fuse and the spine becomes rigid.
Cauda equina syndrome – a condition in which the nerves that control the bowels and bladder are pinched as they leave the spine. Unless treated promptly, the condition can lead to the loss of bowel or bladder function.
Cervical spine – the upper portion of the spine closest to the skull. The cervical spine comprises seven vertebrae.
Chronic pain – the least common type of back pain. Chronic pain may begin either quickly or slowly; it generally lasts for 3 months or more.
Disc – a circular piece of cushioning tissue situated between each of the spine's vertebrae. Each disc has a strong outer cover and a soft jelly-like filling.
Discectomy – the surgical removal of a herniated disc. A discectomy can be performed in a number of different ways, such as through a large incision in the spine or through newer, less invasive procedures using magnifying microscopes, x rays, small tools, and even lasers.
Facet joints – the joints where the vertebrae of the spine connect to one another. Arthritis of the facet joints is believed to be an uncommon cause of back pain.
Fibromyalgia – a condition of widespread muscle pain, fatigue, and tender points on the body. Fibromyalgia is one cause of low back pain.
Herniated disc – a potentially painful problem in which the hard outer coating of the disc is damaged, allowing the disc's jelly-like center to leak and cause irritation to adjacent nerves.
Intradiscal electrothermal therapy (IDT) – a treatment for herniated discs in which a wire is inserted into the disc through a small incision in the back. An electrical current is then passed through wire to modify and strengthen the collagen fibers that hold the disc together.
Kyphoplasty – a procedure for vertebral fractures in which a balloon-like device is inserted into the vertebra to help restore the height and shape of the spine and a cement-like substance is injected to repair and stabilize it.
Laminectomy – the surgical removal of the lamina (the back of the spinal canal) and spurs inside the canal that are pressing on nerves within the canal. The procedure is a major surgery requiring a large incision and a hospital stay.
Lumbar spine – the lower portion of the spine. The lumbar spine comprises five vertebrae.
Osteoarthritis – a disease in which the cartilage that cushions the ends of the bones at the joints wears away, leading to pain, stiffness, and bony overgrowths, called spurs. It is the most common form of arthritis and becomes more likely with age.
Osteoporosis – a condition in which the bones become porous and brittle and break easily.
Prolotherapy – a treatment for back pain in which a practitioner injects a sugar solution or other irritating substance into trigger points along the periosteum (tough, fibrous tissue covering the bones) to trigger an inflammatory response that promotes the growth of dense, fibrous tissue. The theory behind prolotherapy is that such tissue growth strengthens the attachment of tendons and ligaments whose loosening has contributed to back pain.
Rolfing – a type of massage that uses strong pressure on deep tissues in the back to relieve tightness of the fascia (a sheath of tissue that covers the muscles) that can cause or contribute to back pain.
Rheumatoid arthritis – a disease that occurs when the body's immune system attacks the tissue that lines the joints, leading to joint pain, inflammation, instability, and misshapen joints.
Sacroiliac joints – the joints where the spine and pelvis attach. The sacroiliac joints are often affected by types of arthritis referred to as spondyloarthropathies.
Sciatica – pain felt down the back and outer side of the thigh. The usual cause is a herniated disc, which is pressing on a nerve root.
Scoliosis – a condition in which the spine curves to one side as a result of congenital malformations, neuromuscular disorders, injury, infection, or tumors.
Spinal fusion – the surgical joining of two more vertebrae together, usually with bone grafts and hardware. The resulting fused vertebrae are stable but immobile. Spinal fusion is used as a treatment for spondylolisthesis, scoliosis, herniated discs, and spinal stenosis.
Spinal stenosis – the narrowing of the spinal canal (through which the spinal cord runs), often by the overgrowth of bone caused by osteoarthritis of the spine.
Spondyloarthropathy – a form of arthritis that primarily affects the spine and sacroiliac joints.
Spondylolisthesis – a condition in which a vertebra of the lumbar (lower) spine slips out of place.
Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) – a treatment designed to relieve pain by directing mild electrical impulses to nerves in the painful area of the body.
Vertebrae – the individual bones that make up the spinal column.
Vertebroplasty – a minimally invasive surgical procedure that involves injecting a cement-like mixture into a fractured vertebra to relieve pain and stabilize the spine.
The NIAMS gratefully acknowledges the assistance of James Kang, M.D., University of Pittsburgh, PA; Jeffrey Katz, M.D., Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston, MA; William Lauerman, M.D., Georgetown University, Washington, DC; and James Panagis, M.D., M.P.H., NIAMS, NIH, Bethesda, MD, in the preparation and review of this booklet. Special thanks also go to the other individuals who reviewed this publication and provided valuable assistance.
The mission of the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), a part of the Department of Health and Human Services' National Institutes of Health (NIH), is to support research into the causes, treatment, and prevention of arthritis and musculoskeletal and skin diseases; the training of basic and clinical scientists to carry out this research; and the dissemination of information on research progress in these diseases. The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases Information Clearinghouse is a public service sponsored by the NIAMS that provides health information and information sources. Additional information can be found on the NIAMS Web site at www.niams.nih.gov.
For Your Information
This publication contains information about medications used to treat the health condition discussed here. When this booklet was printed, we included the most up-to-date (accurate) information available. Occasionally, new information on medication is released.
For updates and for any questions about any medications you are taking, please contact the U.S. Food and Drug Administration at 1–888–INFO–FDA (1–888–463–6332, a toll-free call) or visit its Web site at www.fda.gov.
For updates and questions about statistics, please contact the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics toll free at 1–800–232–4636 or visit its Web site at www.cdc.gov/nchs.
This booklet is not copyrighted. Readers are encouraged to duplicate and distribute as many copies as needed.
Additional copies of this booklet are available from the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, NIAMS/National Institutes of Health, 1 AMS Circle, Bethesda, MD 20892–3675, and on the NIAMS Web site at www.niams.nih.gov.
NIH Publication No. 05-5282
Back pain at work: Preventing aches, pains and injuries
Whether it's dull and annoying or screaming for attention, back pain can make it hard to concentrate on your job.
Many occupations — such as nursing, construction and factory work — may place significant demands on your back. Even routine office work can worsen back pain if you fall into risky habits.
But you often can avoid back pain and injuries by understanding what causes them and focusing on prevention.
What causes back injuries?
Doctors aren't sure about all of the causes of back pain. In fact, most back problems are probably the result of a combination of factors. Some factors, such as family history, aren't preventable. Other factors, such as weight, fitness and flexibility, can be controlled by changing your lifestyle. Still other factors are work related, and you may or may not be able to modify these to prevent injury.
Four work-related factors are associated with increased risk of back pain and injury:
- Force. Exerting too much force on your back may cause injury. If your job is physical in nature, you might face injury if you frequently lift or move heavy objects.
- Repetition. Repetition refers to the number of times you perform a certain movement. Overly repetitious tasks can lead to muscle fatigue or injury, particularly if they involve stretching to the end of your range of motion or awkward body positioning.
- Posture. Posture refers to your position when sitting, standing or performing a task. If, for instance, you spend most of your time in front of a computer, you may experience occasional aches and pains from sitting still for extended periods of time. On average, your body can tolerate being in one position for about 20 minutes before you feel the need to adjust.
- Stress. Pressures at work or at home can increase your stress level and lead to muscle tension and tightness, which may in turn lead to back pain.
How to avoid injuries
Your best bet in preventing back pain and injury is to be as fit as you can be and take steps to make your work and your working environment as safe as possible.
Even if you move around a lot on your job or your job requires physical exertion, you still need to exercise. Regular exercise is your best bet in maintaining a healthy back. First of all, you'll keep your weight in check, and carrying around a healthy weight for your body's frame minimizes stress on your back. You can do specific strengthening and stretching exercises that target your back muscles. These exercises are called "core strengthening" because they work both your abdominal and back muscles. Strong and flexible muscles will help keep your back in shape.
Pay attention to posture
Poor posture stresses your back. When you slouch or stand with a swayback, you exaggerate your back's natural curves. Such posture can lead to muscle fatigue and injury. In contrast, good posture relaxes your muscles and requires minimal effort to balance your body.
- Standing posture. If you stand for long periods, rest one foot on a stool or small box from time to time. While you stand, hold reading material at eye level. Don't bend forward to do desk work or handwork.
- Sitting posture. To promote comfort and good posture while sitting, choose a chair that supports your back. Adjust the chair so that your feet stay flat on the floor. If the chair doesn't support your lower back's curve, place a rolled towel or small pillow behind your lower back. Remove bulky objects, such as a wallet, from your back pockets when you sit because they can disrupt balance in your lower back.
There's a right way and a wrong way to lift and carry a load. Some key tips for lifting the right way include letting your legs do the work, keeping objects close to your body and recruiting help if a load is too heavy.
Adjust your work space
Look at the setup of your office or work area. Think about how you could modify repetitive job tasks to reduce physical demands. Remember that you're trying to decrease force and repetition and maintain healthy, safe postures. For instance, you might use lifting devices or adjustable equipment to help you lift loads. If you're on the phone most of the day, try a headset. Avoid cradling the phone between your shoulder and ear to free up your hands for yet another task. If you work at a computer, make sure that your monitor and chair are positioned properly.
Adopt healthy work habits
Pay attention to your surroundings and abilities on the job. Take these steps to prevent back pain:
- Plan your moves. Reorganize your work to eliminate high-risk, repetitive movements. Avoid unnecessary bending, twisting and reaching. Limit the time you spend carrying heavy briefcases, purses and bags. If you're carrying something heavy, know exactly where you intend to put it and whether that space is free from clutter.
- Listen to your body. If you must sit or stand for a prolonged period, change your position often. Take a 30-second timeout every 15 minutes or so to stretch, move or relax. Try standing up when you answer the phone, to stretch and change positions. If your back hurts, stop activities that aggravate it.
- Minimize hazards. Falls can seriously injure your back. Think twice before wearing high heels. Low-heeled shoes with nonslip soles are a better bet. Remove anything from your work space that might cause you to trip.
- Work on coordination and balance. Just walking regularly for exercise can help you maintain your coordination and balance. You can also perform balance exercises to keep you steady on your feet.
Being under stress causes your muscles to tense, and this can make you more prone to injury. In addition, the more stress you feel, the lower your tolerance for pain. Try to minimize your sources of stress both on the job and at home. Develop coping mechanisms for times when you feel especially stressed. For instance, perform deep-breathing exercises, take a walk around the block or talk about your frustrations with a trusted friend.