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Spine Pain

What Is Spine Pain?

Spine pain is most common in the cervical (upper) or lumbar (lower) areas of the spine, rather than the thoracic (middle) area. Spine pain that comes on suddenly and lasts fewer than six weeks is considered acute. If it continues for three months or longer, it is considered chronic. Because the back and spine are involved in so much physical movement, spine pain can be debilitating.

There are numerous causes of spine pain, from traumatic injury to gradual degradation of the spinal structure. Common causes include:

  • A fall or other accident

  • A bulging or ruptured disk

  • Spinal stenosis, narrowing of the space around the spinal cord

  • A strained muscle or ligament, often from heavy lifting

  • Skeletal irregularities, such as scoliosis

  • Osteoporosis, which can lead to compression fractures in the vertebrae

  • Arthritis

  • Myofascial pain syndrome, characterized by unexplained muscle soreness and pain

  • Another underlying disease, such as cancer

Risk Factors

The risk of developing spine pain increases with age, but many other risk factors are controllable, including:

  • Lack of exercise

  • Smoking

  • Poor body mechanics, including improper standing, sitting and lifting

  • Being overweight

Symptoms

Spine pain is common, but when it is severe or chronic, it can significantly impact quality of life. Typical symptoms include:

  • Muscle pain — Muscles may ache, or sufferers might experience shooting or stabbing pain.

  • Leg pain — Damage to the sciatic nerve in the spinal cord can cause pain that radiates from the back down to the knee.

  • Back inflexibility — Osteoarthritis, degeneration of the cartilage, can make the back stiff and cause movement issues.

Medical attention is necessary if the pain is the result of an injury, is severe and doesn’t improve with rest or is accompanied by numbness, weakness or tingling in the legs; fever; bowel or bladder problems; unexplained weight loss; or pain that radiates below the knee.

Treatment Options

Nonsurgical Treatment Methods

People with less severe spine pain can often manage it themselves through lifestyle changes, such as bed rest, exercise, improving posture and losing weight. Doctors can treat spine pain through nonsurgical method, including:

  • Medication — Acetaminophen and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can reduce pain and inflammation. Muscle relaxers can relieve muscle spasms, and topical creams may relieve muscle pains. Corticosteroids or oral steroids can also relieve inflammation. Pain medications may also be recommended.

  • Physical therapy — A physical therapist can teach exercises to help relieve pain and increase function while providing education that teaches people with spine pain how to avoid future problems.

  • Injections or nerve blocks — Local anesthetics are injected close to the nerve to relieve pain.

  • Alternative treatments — Massage or electrical nerve stimulation helps some sufferers relieve pain.

Surgical Treatment Methods

  • Discectomy — This surgical procedure removes part of all of a damaged disc in the spine.

  • Laminectomy — During this surgery, also known as decompression surgery, part of the vertebra is removed to expand the spinal canal and remove spinal cord or nerve pressure.

  • Spinal fusion — This procedure helps prevent painful movement by joining two or three levels of the spine.

  • Vertebroplasty and kyphoplasty — A cement-like substance is injected between vertebrae to relieve pain from a compression fracture.

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