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Common Causes of Back Pain

An Overview

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Updated June 05, 2014

Senior Man Suffering From Backache Working In Vegetable Garden
Echo/Cultura/Getty Images

If you suffer from back pain, you are far from being alone. Four out of five adults experience the symptoms of low back pain at least once in their lifetime. The back is a complex structure made up of 33 vertebrae, over 30 muscles, numerous ligaments, multiple joints, and inter-vertebral discs. As you can see, there are many structures that can cause discomfort if injured or affected.

The most common cause of back pain is due to muscular strains. This happens when an unexpected force, twist, or pull is applied to one or several of the muscles in the back. As a result, several tears occur in the muscle. These muscular tears cause pain felt in the back. Ligamentous sprains are another common cause of back pain. This occurs when the ligaments of the back are stretched beyond their means. Sprains often occur along with muscular strains.

Herniated discs result in back pain by compressing the spinal nerves where they exit the spinal column. They are often the result of repetitive vibratory motion (as experienced by truck drivers/machine users) or due to a sudden heavy loading of the back (as occurs with improper lifting) This injury results in a radicular type of back pain in which pain is felt at the site of injury and along the course of the affected nerve. Sciatica, for example, is a type of radicular pain.

Spinal stenosis is another cause of back pain. It occurs more commonly in people over 50 years old. The term refers to a narrowing of the spinal canal. Spinal stenosis has many causes including thickened ligaments along the spinal canal, bony spurs, and enlarged joint cartilage from arthritic changes. This condition often results in back pain that is worse with extended periods of weight bearing or walking. Surgery is sometimes necessary to correct this disorder.

Osteoarthritis affects the joints of the spine. As with spinal stenosis, it found more commonly in people over 50 years of age. It is often referred to as degenerative joint disease. With time cartilage starts to degenerate in the discs between our vertebrae and in the joints of our spine. Without this cartilaginous cushion, our bones begin to rub against each other. This results in inflammation, swelling and stiffness that in turn cause back pain. As this disorder progresses bones develop spurs and ligaments become thick, both of which result in spinal stenosis as described above.

Osteoporosis is a common cause of back pain especially in women. It is a disease characterized by progressive loss of bone density. This results in thinning of bone tissue making one more susceptible to fractures, or broken bones. The bones of the spine are especially affected in this disorder. Injury from falls, lifting of heavy objects, or even the force of sneezing can result in painful vertebral compression fractures.

Lastly, fibromyalgia is a common cause of chronic back pain. It is a rheumatic condition characterized by widespread soft tissue pain, fatigue, sleep disturbance, and the presence of evenly distributed areas of tenderness. A history of at least three months of widespread pain and tenderness in eleven or more of the eighteen designated tender point sites is required in diagnosing this disorder.

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