Pain in the back or neck can come from several sources—some cases are muscular in origin, while others arise from problems with the spine or nerves associated with the spinal cord.
Muscle, tendon and ligament strain, which can lead to symptoms ranging from mild to severe, are some of the most common causes of back pain. This type of injury may result from lifting a heavy object or performing repetitive activity that strains the back muscles. Twisting motions and sudden movements also can lead to pain by stretching muscles or ligaments, or by causing microscopic tears in muscle fibers. Pain originating in the soft tissue of the back also may result from falls, auto accidents or sports injuries. Fortunately, this type of back pain typically resolves on its own over time with rest or, when appropriate, with physical therapy or medication.
Another significant source of back pain relates to the spine or the nerves coming off the spinal cord. Common types of spine-related problems include:
bulging or herniated (“slipped”) discs, in which the soft tissue in the disks between the vertebrae slip out or move and press against a nerve;
degenerative disc disease, in which the discs—the “shock absorbers” of the spine—deteriorate due to age and overuse, causing vertebral bones to rub together; and
spinal stenosis, or narrowing of the spinal canal, which puts pressure on the spinal cord.
Additional spine problems include radiculopathy, commonly known as “pinched nerve,” in which a herniated disc or bone spur presses on a nerve, and inflammation or degenerative changes in the sacroiliac joint, where the spine and pelvis come together.
Treatment for these and similar conditions typically involves addressing the spinal problem at the source of the pain, and may range from conservative treatments like physical therapy, corticosteroid injections and pain medications to spine surgery.
Back pain and back injuries are a leading cause of disability in the United States. It’s important to take care of your spine and back muscles by maintaining good posture while sitting/standing, observing proper ergonomic and mechanical principles when lifting or moving heavy objects, and regularly performing exercises that strengthen the muscles of your back and core.