Back Pain


Types of Backpain

Back pain, no matter the cause, falls into one of the three following categories according to how long the pain lasts:

  • Acute, lasting less than 3 months.
  • Recurrent, a repeat episode of acute symptoms.
  • Chronic, lasting longer than 3 months.

Sprains and Strains Are the Most Frequent Cause of Back Pain

Your lumbar vertebrae are pretty tough, built to withstand the wear and tear of everyday living. So are the ligaments, tendons, discs, and all the other parts that make up your back. But, tough as they are, your lower back often wears down and begins to hurt.

Causes of Sprains and Strains

Your back pain most likely comes from one of these causes:

  • Slouching or hunching
  • Driving, standing or sitting for long periods of time, especially without changing positions
  • Lifting incorrectly
  • Sudden, awkward movement
  • Emotional stress which causes tension in the back muscles
  • Sleeping on  mattresses that are too soft or in bad positions
  • Being unfit
  • Excess body weight
  • Injury, such as from an accident or fall

Why? Back pain most often occurs from strained back muscles and ligaments, often compounded by other factors, such as inactivity or the drying out, shrinking and degeneration of discs that occurs with age.

A sprain is technically defined as a stretching or tearing of ligaments (again, what hold vertebrae and discs together), while a strain is a stretching or tearing of muscle.

It is, ironically, a combination of inactivity and activity that is one of the most potent recipes for back pain: An inactive lifestyle combined with inappropriate movements or positions is often at the root of back pain. When the back muscles have been inactive for a long time, they get weak, and they are unable to provide the support to the back when it needs it, making damage to the ligaments, tendons, and discs during inappropriate or strenuous movement all the more likely.

The Many Faces of Back Pain

Below is a list of the different types of back pain. To learn how to avoid these painful predicaments, also peruse our prevention page.

Type of Back Pain Description
Acute back pain Caused by simple strains and sprains as described above, this is one of the most common forms of back pain. The lumbar region withstands a lot of wear and tear as part of every day living. As wear and tear accumulate, the result is often mild pain or acute injury.
Herniated disc A herniated disc is frequently the cause of mild or moderate low back or leg pain, as well. When one of the discs between the vertebrae bulges or becomes misshapen due to activity, misuse or injury, it can pinch or irritate a nerve root, causing pain. People often to refer to their back problems as being related to a “slipped disc.” This is something of a misnomer. Discs can bulge and become misshapen, even burst, but they don' t actually slip: what they are referring to is a herniated disc. Anyone with a weak disc which is suddenly overused can get a herniated disc, but they are most common in people in their 30s or 40s.

A herniated disk is one type of back pain
Sciatica When a herniated disk impinges on the sciatic nerve it can cause sharp, shooting pain through the buttocks and back of the leg, a condition known as sciatica.

The sciatic nerve can be a source of back pain
Spondylolisthesis Spondylolisthesis occurs when one vertebra slips over another.
Pregnancy Pregnancy is frequently the cause of stretching of the ligaments and pressure on the lower back.
Fibromyalgia Fibromyalgia is a condition characterized by fatigue, widespread pain in  muscles, ligaments and tendons, and multiple tender points, including the back. Fibromylagia is a debilitating and still somewhat mysterious condition which affects women aged 25 to 50. 
Intervertebral disc degeneration Intervertebral disc degeneration refers to the gradual breaking down of the discs with age . It is an inevitable process, and is another common cause of back pain in older people.
Osteoarthritis Arthritis—or degenerative joint disease—has over 100 different forms. It causes the breakdown of joint cartilage and can affect any of the joints in the body, including those in the back. Spinal stenosis and sponfylosis are both conditions related to arthritis which affect the back. Spinal stenosis occurs when the space around the spinal cord and nerve root narrows due to arthritis and bone overgrowth. Spondylosis is a type of arthritis affecting the spine in particular.
Osteoporosis Osteoporosis—or porous bones—causes bones to become weak and brittle, which in turn can lead to problems with the back.

Other Acquired Diseases

A large number of more serious diseases and ailments can affect the back—from scoliosis and spinal stenosis to kidney stones and osteomyelitis. See the section on “when to see a doctor” to determine if your back pain might be caused by something more serious.

About 80 per cent of back pain cases have no known cause but are no less real (and no less painful!) than the cases where the cause can be rooted out. Back pain can also develop slowly over time so the cause of the problem isn't always apparent.

The American Academy of Family Physicians has created a questionnaire to help you determine what kind of back pain you have:

Are You at High Risk for Back Pain? Click next and find out.

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