Your spine is comprised of a complicated structure of bones, joints, ligaments and muscles that work together to provide a great deal of strength to support the rest of your body. It protects the highly sensitive spinal cord and nerve roots, yet is flexible enough to provide mobility in all directions. Your spine is one of the most important parts of the body and keeping it healthy is essential for proper function. However, it’s estimated that up to 80% of the population will experience back or neck pain at some point in their lives. Back and neck pain is also the leading cause of disability in the United States, leaving many people unable to engage in work or other activities each day.
There are many different parts of the spine that can produce 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. In many cases, the exact cause of back pain cannot definitively be determined because many factors can contribute to loss of function including - age, body weight, activity level, injury or trauma, diet, posture and more. Pain can also vary in severity and longevity. Acute back or neck 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.
Pain can be a complex experience so it’s important to understand the type of pain you may be experiencing, and the cause in order to determine the best way to alleviate it. Sylvia Deily, chiropractor and rehabilitation specialist at UT Health Austin’s Back and Neck Pain Center says, “there are two types of back pain - back pain that is worse with specific movements or certain positions, and back pain that is not affected by movement or position. So, we ask very detailed questions to determine what structures are involved and what may be causing pain and how best to treat it.”
During an evaluation specialists typical look for patterns that provide clues as to what aggravates symptoms and from there develop a treatment plan designed to address the specific areas that may need to improve to alleviate your pain. In most cases, imaging, such as x-ray or MRI, is not needed as it does not provide any additional information needed to develop an effective treatment plan. Contrary to popular thinking, imaging can be counterproductive, creating unnecessary worry, when it has been shown that a large percentage of healthy, pain free individuals have a variety of imaging “abnormalities.”
“The first go-to treatment for back pain is almost always therapeutic exercise,” says Mark Queralt, MD, Clinical Director of the Back and Neck Pain Center. “People experiencing pain typically recover faster if they stay active, so we recommend starting with small doses of exercise and then increasing the time of activity as symptoms improve. We encourage patients to get back to their normal routine as soon as possible. Most acute back pain episodes resolve within four to six weeks or less when patients stick to their activity plan.”
If your back or neck pain was caused by an injury such as a hit during a sporting game or trauma from a car accident, it’s important to see a doctor immediately. There are simple things you can implement in your daily life to help mitigate back and neck pain, but if your pain is chronic or reoccurring, it is recommended you see a doctor to get more specialized treatment for your specific condition.
Strategies you can implement today that can help to prevent the onset of back and neck pain include:
- Maintain a healthy diet and weight
- Remain active—daily exercise can help strengthen the supporting muscles in your spine
- Avoid prolonged inactivity or bed rest
- Warm up or stretch before exercising or physical activities
- Maintain proper posture (especially while sitting for long periods of time)
- Wear comfortable, low-heeled shoes
- Get enough sleep, at least 7 to 8 hours
- When lifting an object, lift with your knees
- Quit smoking. Smoking impairs blood flow, resulting in oxygen and nutrient deprivation to spinal tissues