As many as 4 out of 5 people have back pain at some point in their lives. For most people, back pain is acute, meaning it comes on suddenly and lasts from a few days to a few weeks. For others, back pain is chronic, lasting months or more.
Back pain can occur with many forms of arthritis and related conditions, including ankylosing spondylitis, enteropathic arthritis, psoriatic arthritis and fibromyalgia. Most acute pain, however, occurs after some type of trauma, such as a sports injury, an automobile accident, lifting improperly or something similar.
Possible sources of back pain include the following:
- Strains or sprains. When tendons, ligaments or muscles in the back are stretched or torn – usually from a sudden injury such as with lifting or bending activities – the result can be pain. The pain of a sprain or strain may be felt in one spot in your back or it may be felt all over your back and nearby areas.
- Muscle spasms. Overworked muscles can go into spasm – painful cramping similar to a charley horse in your calf. The cramping, caused by muscle contractions, is nature’s ways of making you rest the muscles and prevent further damage.
- Ruptured or herniated discs. Wedges of cartilage, called discs, separate and cushion the bones that make up your spine. When the discs become weak, the soft center can push or bulge out, pressing on nearby nerves.
- Vertebral fractures. Fractures of the bones that make up your spine are most often the result of osteoporosis, which weakens the vertebrae and causes them to collapse. These are called compression fractures.
- Spinal narrowing. Narrowing of the spinal column, called spinal stenosis, can crowd or pinch the nerves running through it. It is often a result of overgrowth of bone, called bone spurs, related to osteoarthritis of the spine.
- Spinal curvature. Any condition that causes misalignment or curvature of the spine can place pressure on the nerves, leading to back pain. These include degenerative adult scoliosis, a sideways curvature of the spine caused by age and deterioration of the spine; spondylolisthesis, where one vertebra slides out of position and onto the vertebra below it; kyphosis, an excessive rounding of the back; and lordosis (also called swayback), an over-pronounced inward curvature of the spine.