Back Pain Overview: A Guide for Understanding Back Pain

The back and spine are designed to provide a great deal of strength, protecting the highly sensitive spinal cord and nerve roots, yet flexible, providing for mobility in all directions.

However, there are many different parts of the spine that can produce back pain, such as irritation to the large nerve roots that run down the legs and arms, irritation to small nerves inside the spine, strains to the large back muscles, as well as any injury to the disc, bones, joints or ligaments in the spine.

Acute back pain comes on suddenly and usually lasts from a few days to a few weeks. Chronic back pain is typically described as lasting for more than three months.

Back pain can take on a wide variety of characteristics:

  • The pain may be constant, intermittent, or only occur with certain positions or activities
  • The pain may remain in one spot or refer or radiate to other areas
  • It may be a dull ache, or a sharp or piercing or burning sensation
  • The problem may be in the neck or low back but may radiate into the leg or foot (sciatica), arm or hand.
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Other than pain, back pain symptoms may include weakness, numbness or tingling.

Fortunately, most forms of back pain get better on their own: approximately 50% of patients will experience back pain relief within two weeks and 90% within three months.

If the pain lasts for more than a few days, is getting worse, does not respond to back pain remedies such as a short period of rest, using ice or heat, lower back pain exercises and over-the-counter pain relievers, then it is usually advisable to see a back doctor. There are two instances in which emergency medical care is needed:

  • Bowel and/or bladder dysfunction
  • Progressive weakness in the legs

Fortunately, these conditions are rare.

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