Back pain basics
What is back pain?
Back pain includes sore muscles and tendons, prolapsed ('slipped') discs, fractures and other problems affecting the back. Back pain can develop over a long period of time, or can result from an accident or heavy lifting.
The spinal column is an extraordinary mechanism. It keeps us stable enough to stand upright but flexible enough for movement. The backbone, or spine, is actually a stack of 24 individual bones called vertebrae.
A healthy spine is S-shaped when viewed from the side. It curves back at the shoulders and forwards at the neck and small of the back. It is 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 incorrectly.
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 back aches occur for no apparent reason. This is called non-specific back ache. It may develop from weakened muscles that cannot handle every day walking, bending or stretching. In other cases, the discomfort seems to come from general tension, lack of proper sleep and/or stress.
A condition called fibrositis causes chronic backache from localised muscle tension. Sometimes this original muscle tension comes from stress or other emotional problems.
It makes little difference whether the muscle strain is from lifting heavy objects or from something as innocuous as a sneeze - the pain can be agonising.
Pregnancy commonly brings on back pain. Hormonal changes and weight gain put new kinds of stresses on a pregnant woman's spine and legs.
Injuries from contact sports, accidents and falls can cause problems ranging from minor muscle strains to severe damage to the spinal column or the spinal cord itself.