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Back Pain 101

Back Pain Symptoms and Causes

It doesn’t really matter what you want to call it - herniated disc, sciatica, arthritis, degenerative disc disease, lumber pain, thoracic pain, sacral pain, facet syndrome, radiculopathy, spinal stenosis, piriformis syndrome - your back ache is telling you that something is wrong.

Health care professionals are required to give you some sort of medical diagnosis, however, the majority of low back pain is difficult to pin down.

Luckily, an accurate diagnosis is not always necessary for achieving back pain relief. Appropriate treatment for back pain is much more important to your recovery than having a medical term to attribute your back pain to.

Back Pain Symptoms

  • Back stiffness upon waking up in the morning

  • Low back ache or upper back pain with prolonged sitting or driving

  • Low back pain when getting in or out of a car

  • Back pain when bending over during such activities as gardening, or taking care of small children.

  • Upper back pain or mid-back pain when using a computer or doing the dishes

  • Gradual onset of lower back pain when doing your usual sport or exercise.

  • Back ache that increases with emotional stress.

  • Please note; the following symptoms are very serious and require immediate medical attention: Loss of bowel or bladder control, numbness in the groin or anal areas, sudden inability to lift your toes up to take a step (your foot drags).

Causes of Back Pain

I won't get into the expansive anatomy and biomechanics of the lumbar spine. Nor am I going to explain, in detail, how the deterioration of the vertebral joints and spinal discs (inter-joint padding) can occur. There are several books and websites that do an excellent job of this. 

Here is the simple version:

  • Disc problems, such as disc herniations or bulges. This means that there has been a shift in the position of the disc. The discs usually act as shock absorbers for the spine, but if they move out of place, they can irritate the adjacent nerve, which travels from the back down the legs.

  • Genetics can play a role in back pain if you were born with abnormal curves in your spine (scoliosis) or if you were born with one leg long than the other. Both problems can create muscle imbalances as you age.

  • Your job. The everyday grind will literally grind on your nerves if your movements are repetitive and unsupported by strong muscles around the spine.

  • Smoking has been associated with increased risk of low back pain. Nicotine thickens the walls of blood vessels thereby reducing the amount of oxygen (nutrients) to muscles that support the back. This, in turn, weakens the muscles and you end up with a weak back.

  • Back pain has been associated in several studies with psychological factors. This does not mean that your pain is all in your head. The theory is that people tense up the back muscles during periods of emotional stress. Chronic stress also triggers the production of inflammation in the body, which can lead to pain.

  • Ligament laxity around the spine and pelvis. This commonly occurs during pregnancy, but can also occur with traumatic or repetitive movements.

  • Nerves are protected by connective tissue in the body. You can imagine this tissue surrounding each nerve (kind of like in a tube). Inflammation generated by a back problem can negatively impact tissue in the body by producing adhesions (scar tissue). The scar tissue along these protective tubes will cause pain as the nerve tries to glide through the tube during arm or leg movements.

  • Muscles protect joints and keep the pelvis and spine in alignment. Over time, disuse, misuse and overuse of muscles will lead to imbalances around the area. This leads to increased demands on the ligaments (making them lax), joints (causing degeneration), and discs (bulge or herniation) and/or a shift in the spine or pelvic positioning (out of alignment).

  • Weak or tight muscles in the hip and ankle can also affect the back by altering the way you walk, sit and move. The hip muscles also play a key role in maintaining the proper positioning of the pelvis.


Back Pain Relief

If you are feeling back pain, then there are several articles on back stretches and back strengthening found in this website. Chantal's Favorite Back Exercise is a good place to start. 

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