Back pain affects the lives of millions of Americans, and for many, it is chronic and disabling. Although common, back pain symptoms and causes can vary widely. How back pain looks and feels for each person depends on their lifestyle, age, and overall health. Fortunately, there are types of back pain that do not require medical diagnosis or treatment, and can be resolved (and prevented!) through self-care and lifestyle adjustments. However, it is important to understand what is causing your back pain so that you can take the best course of action for your body. Often, understanding and treating back pain requires a doctor’s expertise. Seek medical attention if any of these symptoms or situations apply to you:
Common forms of poor posture include forward head posture and upper-crossed syndrome. Forward head posture causes the neck and head to hyperextend forward over the chest. This head position places more stress on the neck, upper, and mid-back than if the head was directly above the shoulders. In a proper postural position, the average adult’s head weighs about 12 pounds. Hyperextended forward, the head can weigh an added 20-30 pounds!Upper-crossed syndrome involves forward head position and a rounding forward of the shoulders. The natural curvature of your upper-mid back (thoracic spine) is exaggerated, known as thoracic kyphosis, and, in severe cases, resembles a hunch-back. This causes dysfunction of neck and shoulder joints, as well as extra stress on the muscles of the back.
Even when sitting still at a desk or in the car, your back and core muscles are working to keep your spine erect. It's a constant fight against gravity for the spine and core muscles to keep us upright. However, even with great posture, sitting requires some muscles to constantly contract (work), and others to remain in a stretched position. Low back pain is common with prolonged sitting. To prevent tension or overuse injury, frequently stretch those muscles you use the most, and do some strengthening exercises to activate the ones you use less often.
Another reason for back pain are injuries to the soft tissues, such as muscle strain or ligament sprain. Repetitive movements can lead to tears in muscle fibers or the overstretching of the fibrous ligaments which connect muscle to bone. Lifting heavy objects and fast, awkward motions can injure back muscles or spinal ligaments. While strains and sprains can happen to anyone, athletes are at higher risk. Mild injuries to soft tissues will resolve with rest and time, but more serious sprains and strains may require physical therapy or surgery.
Back pain is also commonly caused by issues with spinal (vertebral) joints and discs. Injury, degenerative diseases, bone spurs, and tumors can lead to inflammation of soft tissues around the spine, or a narrowing of the spinal canal. Problems involving the spine are serious and can get worse over time, causing permanent damage, if not treated properly. Consult a specialist if you suspect spine-related issues to be the reason for your back pain.