Our spines are remarkable – they're made up of incredibly intricate systems of bones, ligaments, tendons, and muscles all working together to allow us to move in all directions.
But there’s a downside to all this movement. Over time, it can add up to wear-and-tear related damage that can translate to pain and stiffness.
If it hurts you to move, knowing what's happening in your spine can help you better communicate with your physician. Hopefully, the better the communication, the faster you will find a treatment that works.
Here are 5 common reasons motion causes back pain:
1. Large spinal muscles are easily strained with twisting motions
The most common reason motion will cause back or neck pain has little to do with the bones in your spine. It’s the muscles and ligaments that surround your spine.
With twisting your lower back, such as in a golf swing or while bending to unload grocery bags in to your car, any of these large muscles or supporting ligaments can become over-stretched or even torn. In response to this damage, the area around the muscles will usually become inflamed. The inflammation leads to back spasm, and it is the back spasm that can cause both severe lower back pain and difficulty moving.
2. Motion in the lower spine can lead to pain
Of the four major regions of the spine, the lumbar spine (lower back) has a lot of motion and carries all the weight of your torso, making it the most frequently injured area of the spine.
Your two lowest discs, the (L4-L5 and L5-S1), endure the most strain and are the most likely to become herniated. A herniation can cause pain and possibly numbness that radiates through the leg and down to the foot (sciatica).
- For more on sciatica, see What You Need to Know About Sciatica
3. Motion can lead to cartilage breakdown
Spinal osteoarthritis is the mechanical breakdown of the cartilage between the aligning facet joints in the back portion of the spine.
The facet joints become inflamed, and progressive joint degeneration creates more frictional pain. As the back pain progresses, the motion and flexibility of the spine decreases.
Typical symptoms include:
- More stiffness and pain in the lower spine in the mornings and later in the day.
- More stiffness and pain in sacroiliac joint in the mornings and later in the day.
- Decreased pain during the day as normal movements stir the fluid lubricant of the joints.
- Low back pain radiating to the pelvis, buttocks, or thighs and sometimes to the groin.
4. Bone spurs can form to compensate for too much motion
Over time, the motion in the spine will usually lead to disc degeneration and joint instability. When this happens, bone spurs (small irregular growths on the bone, also called osteophytes) typically form on the facet joints in response to joint instability (from the degeneration).
Bone spurs can be a normal part of aging and do not directly cause pain. However, they may become large enough to cause irritation or entrapment of nerves passing through spinal structures, and this may result in diminished room for the nerves to pass (called spinal stenosis).
Most cases will produce pain (and perhaps numbness and tingling) into the legs with walking, and the pain will be relieved with sitting.
Over time, degeneration of the facet joints in the lower back can result in formation of a fluid-filled sac called a synovial cyst. These cysts are benign, but if they put pressure on the spinal canal they can, like bone spurs, cause symptoms of spinal stenosis.
5. Disc degeneration leads to pain from micro-motion
Disc degeneration in the spine can create excessive micro-motion at a vertebral level and lead to lower back pain, a condition termed degenerative disc disease.
Common symptoms of degenerative disc disease include:
- Low back pain that generally worsens with sitting.
- Certain types of activity usually worsen low back pain, especially bending, lifting, and twisting.
- Walking, and even running, may actually feel better than prolonged sitting or standing.
- Patients generally feel better if they change positions frequently, and lying down is usually most comfortable.
With a better understanding of the pain associated with motion segment disorders, you can better describe your symptoms and help your doctors more accurately identify the specific cause of the pain.