Back pain will be an issue for roughly 80% of the US population at one point or another in their lives. However, the nature of the pain and its effect on their lives can vary greatly from one person to another. As chiropractic physicians, we work closely with our patients to understand exactly what they’re experiencing so that we can diagnose the problem and provide the most effective treatment possible. This starts with asking the right questions. For example:
Where do you feel the pain, and how would you describe it? For many people, the pain may be mild—little more than a minor inconvenience when they first get out of bed in the morning. But for others, it may be severe, potentially limiting their day-to-day activity and changing their lifestyle until it goes away. In addition to its intensity, the pain may also have a particular character. Is it a dull, aching pain or is it a sharp, shooting one?
Was the pain triggered by something specific, how long have you had it, and is it constant or does it come and go? In some cases, the pain may be acute (perhaps related to a recent sports, auto or work injury), while in others it may be recurring or chronic—either reemerging from time to time or lingering on for weeks, months or even years. It may also be the result of some other underlying health conditions.
Does the pain seem to get better or worse in certain situations? It’s not unusual for the pain to change in response to particular body positions or movements.
These types of diagnostic questions—along with a comprehensive physical examination and appropriate tests—can help us identify specific structural or mechanical problems that may be affecting your musculoskeletal or nervous systems. Some of the more common causes of back pain are described briefly below.
- Muscle strains and muscle spasms are the most common causes of low back pain. While patients may or may not remember the initial event that triggered their problem, muscle strains and spasms can be incredibly painful.
- A ruptured, herniated, slipped or bulging disc is another common cause of back pain. These terms are often used somewhat interchangeably to describe a damaged disc with material protruding from it. In this situation, pain may be caused because there is less cushioning between the vertebrae and/or because protruding disc material is applying pressure to spinal nerves. It is important to note that a large percentage of the population is walking around with some form of disc degeneration that causes no symptoms, so not every herniated disc warrants treatment or intervention.
- Discogenic back pain is the result of damage to an intervertebral disc, but without disc herniation. Diagnosis of discogenic back pain may require the use of a discogram.
- Spinal stenosis causes a lot of back pain in the elderly. As we age, the spinal canal can become constricted from arthritis and other conditions. If the spinal canal becomes too tight, back pain can be the result.
- Arthritis most commonly affects joints such as the knees and fingers. However, arthritis can affect any joint in the body, including the small joints of the spine. Arthritis of the spine can cause back pain with movement.
- Spondylolisthesis causes back pain because adjacent vertebra become unstable and begin to “slip.” The most common cause of spondylolisthesis is degeneration of the normal stabilizing structures of the spinal column.
It’s important for patients and their families to be aware that back pain is a very complex phenomenon. Even with long professional experience, specialized training and high-tech equipment, it can still be very difficult for healthcare providers to diagnose. This is the reason that a large percentage of cases are ultimately characterized as “non-specific back pain.” But it’s also why you shouldn’t try to self-diagnose or self-treat. If you do have serious structural or mechanical problems that are affecting your back, your condition could actually be made worse as a result of inappropriate treatment or delay.
Chiropractors are experts in diagnosing and treating musculoskeletal and nervous system problems. If you or someone you care about is suffering from back pain, we encourage you to call or visit our office today. We’ll work closely with you to understand your situation and put in place an effective treatment plan that will help you recover as quickly and completely as possible. And—if necessary—we’ll even work with you do develop new lifestyle habits that will help prevent back pain in the future!