Our spines are remarkable—they're made up of incredibly intricate systems of bones, ligaments, tendons, and muscles that all work together to enable us to move in all directions.
But there’s a downside to all of this movement. Over time, it can cause wear-and-tear related damage that may lead to pain and stiffness.
Understanding how movement impacts your spine can help you better communicate with your physician. Hopefully, the better the communication, the faster you will find a treatment that works for you.
With this in mind, here are 5 common reasons motion causes back pain:
1. Large spinal muscles are easily strained with twisting motions
The most common reason motion causes back or neck pain has little to do with the bones in your spine. Instead, it’s related to the muscles and ligaments that surround your spine.
When you twist your lower back, such as during a golf swing or while bending to unload grocery bags, you run the risk of overstretching or tearing any of the large muscles or supporting ligaments around your spine. In response to this damage, the surrounding area will usually become inflamed. This inflammation can lead to a back spasm, and it's the back spasm that can cause severe lower back pain.
2. Lumbar spine motion can cause a disc herniation
Your lumbar spine (lower back) is constantly in motion, and it also carries the entire weight of your torso. This makes your lumbar spine particularly prone to injuries.
The motion in your lumbar spine is divided between five vertebral motion segments. Each one of these segments is made up of two cartilage-covered facet joints and a spinal disc.
Your two lowest discs (the L4-L5 and L5-S1) endure the most strain, and therefore are the most likely to become herniated. A herniation can lead to sciatic pain that radiates down your leg and to your foot.
3. Motion can lead to cartilage breakdown
Repetitive motions, especially for athletes, can lead to spinal osteoarthritis—or the mechanical breakdown of the cartilage between your aligning facet joints in the back portion of the spine.
When this happens, the facet joints become inflamed, and progressive joint degeneration creates more frictional pain. As your 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 the 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, excessive motion in your spine will usually lead to disc degeneration and joint instability. When this happens, bone spurs—or small, irregular growths on the bone—typically form on your 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 irritate or entrap nerves passing through spinal structures. This may result in diminished room for the nerves to pass—which is referred to as spinal stenosis.
Entrapment of your nerves will typically lead to leg pain while walking, and you can often find relief by resting for a period of time.
Over time, degeneration of the facet joints in your lower back can result in the 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 may lead to pain from micro-motion
Disc degeneration in your 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. This may help your doctor more accurately identify the specific cause of your pain.