At some point, almost all of us will have to deal with back pain. We talked to the experts to help you get to the bottom of why your back is hurting.
Why Your Back Is Hurting
Figuring out what’s behind your back pain isn’t always easy to start, there are a lot of confusing back-ailment terms (is a ‘bulging’ disc the same as a ‘slipped’ disc?), so it helps to understand a bit more about your anatomy.
An adult’s spine consists of a stack of 24 bones called vertebrae plus the bones of the sacrum and coccyx. These bones support the body and protect the spinal cord’a major column of nerve fibres connected to the brain that runs through the vertebrae via the spinal canal. A disc, made of cartilage and filled with a gel-like material that acts like a shock absorber, is found between each vertebra. Ligaments, muscles, tendons and small joints called facets hold the vertebrae together.
With that information in mind, we’ve broken down eight possible sources of your back pain.
1) Disc pain
If one of the discs is pushed a bit out of place, usually as a normal part of aging, it’s called a ‘bulging’ disc. If this disc has some cracked cartilage due to an inherited trait, wear and tear or sudden trauma and some of the shock absorbing gel inside the cartilage protrudes out, it’s called a ‘herniated’ (or ‘ruptured’ or ‘slipped’) disc. Both bulging and herniated discs may or may not cause pain.
2) Degenerative Disc Disease
You may also have heard the term “degenerative disc disease.” In fact, it’s not a disease, but rather a kind of catch-all term that refers to the condition of the discs, which lose their water content and sponginess with age, which can lead to osteoarthritis, herniated discs or bulging discs.
3) Facet joint pain
Facet joints are supplied by two nerves, and if either becomes inflamed or pinched, it can be painful.
4) Pinched nerve
Discs pushed out of place may compress a nerve. Often it’s the sciatic nerve (which runs out of the lower spine and into the leg) that is compressed or inflamed. This causes shooting pain called sciatica in the lower back, leg and buttock.
5) Spinal stenosis
This occurs when the spinal canal becomes narrowed (most often due to arthritis) and impinges on nerves, causing pain.
6) Muscle or ligament strain
An intense workout or lifting something heavy is also a frequent source of pain, especially in the lower back. Low back pain is the most common form of back pain because those muscles, ligaments and discs are under the most pressure when you’re sitting or lifting.
This is a common form of arthritis. “As we age, our nice spongy cartilage becomes thinner and is not as compressible,” explains Dr. Mary-Ann Fitzcharles, a Montreal rheumatologist and associate professor of medicine at McGill University. “The underlying bone senses this and then it responds by generating little extra ridges of bone called osteophytes or bone spurs. These little ridges rub against each other, and this mechanical irritation can cause pain.”
Fibromylagia mostly affects women and is recognized as a disturbance of the natural way the body deals with pain. “For many patients who experience back pain, it’s not because of a structural abnormality,” says Fitzcharles. “Rather, the impairment of pain-processing mechanisms means thebrain is hypersensitive to incoming sensory input, or there is a lack of natural mechanisms to inhibit pain.”
Is Back Pain Serious?
Back pain is occasionally a symptom of a serious condition. If you have a history of cancer, or if your back pain is associated with fever, unexplained weight loss, or loss of bowel or bladder control, or gets severely worse when you’re lying down or at night, see a healthcare professional immediately.