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Back pain is a widespread concern. It’s one of the most common reasons people miss work, and the second most common reason people go to the doctor. It’s also a leading cause of disability worldwide. This is why the value of a chiropractor is so essential to your quality of life. A chiropractor can help you avoid all of these potential issues caused by back pain by keeping your spine happy and in alignment.
However, you may be wondering just what causes back pain in the first place. If it’s such a common problem, what are we doing wrong? First, let’s get into some logistics and learn all about back pain. Then, we’ll get into some common causes so you, along with your chiropractor, can come up with the best course of treatment.
Back pain is usually classified and diagnosed by where it is felt on the spine. Most back pain patients feel it in their upper (or thoracic) spine or lower (lumbar) back. The thoracic spine holds the weight of your upper body and is responsible for proper posture. The lumbar spine deals with range of motion and carries much more weight than the upper spine. Depending on your lifestyle and circumstances, you could have pain in either area.
Typically, it’s anywhere from a dull ache to a sharp, shooting pain. It could also be numbness or tingling in the area, indicating a nerve problem. If you have pain in your lower back, you’re also likely to have a very limited overall range of motion. Upper back pain can lead to a lack of strength, headaches, and more. You may also have pain in your cervical spine, which is the neck area, or the sacral spine, which is all the way at the bottom by your pelvis.
If you have either or multiple types of back pain described above, it’s likely a sign of an underlying condition that needs to be addressed. Back pain usually doesn’t happen just arbitrarily, since the back is so intricately connected to the rest of the body and has such a complex system of nerves, muscles, vertebrae, and more. It’s likely that your back pain originated from an issue in one of these areas, so let’s dive in to 10 possible causes of your back pain:
Subluxations are a very common cause of any type of back pain, and they’re the primary condition that chiropractors treat in their patients. Most people think it’s a simple misalignment of your spine, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. The International Chiropractors Association defines a subluxation as “a stress response. Muscles go into spasm. Spinal bones lock up. And adjacent nerves are choked or chafed. This interferes with the control and regulation of your body. This garbles communications between the brain and parts of your body.”
A subluxation involves your whole nervous system. It can be caused by something physically forcing the misalignment, or it can be something more mental or chemical like stress or disease. They can be very painful, but they’re totally manageable.
Next, herniated or bulging discs are another common cause of back pain, but what exactly are they? A disc is basically a cushion between vertebrae in your spine. The cushiony material inside the disc can rupture or bulge out, and press on a nerve or cause the vertebrae to fall out of alignment. This can be very painful, but sometimes, people actually don’t feel them at all. It’s only when they press on a nerve or cause another issue that the pain comes along.
Another common cause of back pain is simple degeneration over time. As you get older, the nutritional fluid that keeps the spine healthy and happy has a harder time getting where it needs to be. The discs in your spine also naturally shrink over time, or even tear and completely break down. These circumstances cause vertebrae and bones to rub together, causing friction, tension, and pain.
Similarly, if you have arthritis in your spine or joints, you’re very likely to experience back pain. This lack of fluid to the joints can cause inflammation and pain in any part of the body, but especially in the spine. This mostly affects the lower back. Sometimes, arthritis of the back can also lead to spinal stenosis (described below).
Keep in mind that your back pain might actually have nothing to do with your spine! It could be a muscle spasm in your back as well, something your chiropractor can also treat. Muscle spasms happen when you perform a sudden movement that causes too much strain on the muscles in your back, putting them under high stress and causing them to spasm. The effects of something like this can last for days. You can avoid this by building up your back muscles so that they’re not shocked by heavy or sudden strain.
A potential cause of chronic back pain is a condition called scoliosis. Scoliosis involves an abnormal curvature of the spine, usually to the side in an “S” or “C” shape. It develops gradually over time, normally starting in childhood or puberty, so if you’re not seeing a chiropractor or haven’t been checked for it before, you might be at risk for having the condition. Generally, it doesn’t cause severe back pain unless it’s an intense curve, but it can still cause it nonetheless.
Osteoporosis is another condition that can cause back pain. It involves a weakening of your bones and vertebrae, making them porous and brittle. It typically occurs in older patients, but it can cause a whole host of issues like fractures, compression, and many other conditions that can be very painful.
Spinal stenosis is a disease in which the internal spinal canal has narrowed significantly, causing added pressure on the nerves and vertebrae in the spine. It happens over time, and also typically occurs in older patients, but it causes slightly different symptoms like numbness in addition to the pain.
Another common cause of back pain in people of any age is a pinched nerve. Pinched nerves happen when the bone or soft tissue surrounding the nerve puts it under pressure and causes it to get inflamed and dysfunctional. This is a tricky kind of pain because it could cause referred pain in other parts of your body, since nerves are connected to your entire nervous system. For example, a pinched nerve in your upper back could cause pain or numbness in your hand. Either way, there is definitely pain associated with pinched nerves.
One of the most common causes of back pain is injury. This could be a sudden injury directly to the back, or it could be referred pain in your back from an injury in another area of the body. The back tends to do a lot of compensating for weaker regions of the body, taking on their weight and what they support. This is why an injury anywhere could lead to muscle strain and back pain.
The above listed reasons are typically the most common things that may be causing your back pain, but it could also be:
Almost all of the causes of back pain outlined above can be avoided and/or treated with regular chiropractic care and simple, practical lifestyle enhancements. A multi-disciplinary chiropractic clinic that offers multiple treatment methods and modalities will be able to give you the best overall care to treat any condition that you have or may get in the future. Combining treatments like adjustments, physical therapy, and massage can make a huge difference in your spinal health. However, the best way to prevent back pain is really up to you.
Lifestyle changes are the best way to maintain a strong, healthy back and spine, and prevent back pain. Your chiropractor can help give you some personalized lifestyle tips and changes you should be making to enhance your back health, but there are a few things that almost anyone can do to prevent their back pain in:
Let’s admit it, most of us could use a bit more exercise. It’s a practical, healthy addition to your life that can make a big impact on your back health.
When starting out, stick with low impact aerobic activities like walking, swimming, or biking. All of these can help build up your muscles gradually and safely without causing any strain. Higher impact aerobic exercises like running or jogging can strain or shock your back if the muscles aren’t built up properly yet.
Some of the best non-cardio exercises for back health are the plank position, which involves facing the floor and holding your body up in place for about 30 second intervals with only elbows, wrists, and toes on the ground. Side planks will also help build up oblique muscles and strengthen back muscles. Planks are one of the most effective core exercises, and they’re very simple and quick, so try to work them into your routine. They’ll help build strength in the upper and partially lower back.
For lumbar or sacral spine strength, try wall sits or hip raises. Wall sits are similar to planks in that you stay in one position for certain time intervals, but here you work your lower body instead of your abdominals. Sit with your back against the wall and knees bent at a 90 degree angle, and stay until you feel your leg and lower back/ab muscles working.
Hip raises involve laying with your back on the ground, feet on the floor, and knees bent up. Raise your hips, making sure to keep your neck long so that you don’t strain it or your upper back, and repeat for however many repetitions you need. This should only be done when you feel strong and confident enough in your upper back and neck strength and alignment. Always make sure to consult with a doctor before starting a new exercise regimen.
Perhaps more importantly than exercise is stretching your back and the muscles in it. So much back pain comes from stress, or tense muscles, so taking a few minutes every day to really stretch this area out can make a huge difference. Try hugging your knees into your chest, rolling onto all fours and doing a cat/cow movement with your breath, and resting back into child’s pose with arms stretched out far in front of you to create space in your back and relieve tense muscles.
Most importantly of all, watch your posture in everyday situations. At work, most of us tend to be hunched over a computer all day. This isn’t great for our spinal health, and can be a contributing factor to many of the conditions above. Make sure you stand and sit with your shoulders back, chin up, and pelvis tucked for as much of the day as possible. Find a new chair, or switch to a standing desk if you’re having difficulty. Good posture can reduce a lot of the stress we put on our backs that contributes to back pain.
Overall, there are many things that can cause your back pain, but most of them can be resolved with regular care from a chiropractor and a healthy lifestyle. Stop into your local chiropractor today and schedule an appointment to get to the bottom of what’s been causing you so much pain, and get you on the fast track to a pain-free life.
Dr. Brent Wells has been a trusted chiropractor since moving his family from Oregon to Alaska back in 1998 and founded Better Health Chiropractic & Physical Rehab – B.S. from Univ. of Nevada, Doctorate from Western States Chiropractic College, volunteer for Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Foundation, and member of the American Chiropractic Association. As a chiropractor his focus is on family, including his 3 children and wife of 20+ years, his clinics, and ongoing education.