Up to 80% of Americans will suffer from back pain at some point in their lives, and it’s the leading cause of disability worldwide.
But there’s good news. By learning more about the anatomy of your back and what’s causing your back pain, you can work to relieve discomfort and prevent it from returning.
The back is a large, complex structure and the diagram below gives you a detailed look at its different parts. But first, it’s helpful to know some key terms.
Spinal cord: Part of the nervous system that carries signals from the brain to cause body movement and convey sensations.
Spinal column: Commonly called the backbone, this structure supports the upper body’s weight and protects the spinal cord.
Vertebral bones/Vertebrae: A series of bones stacked on top of one another creating the spinal column.
Discs: Spongy pads of cartilage placed between the vertebrae that allow for flexibility and act like shock absorbers during body movement.
There are 4 main sections of the spine. From top to bottom, these are:
Causes of Back Pain
One of the reasons back pain is so common is that so many different things can cause it. Below are the most common causes.
Strains and Sprains
Strains and sprains are caused by stretching or tearing a muscle or tendon (strain) or a ligament (sprain). They can be caused by lifting heavy objects or bending over to pick something up. Sometimes even a simple, everyday movement can trigger this type of injury.
You’ve probably heard about someone “slipping” or “rupturing” a disc, or having a “herniated disc.” These terms are sometimes used interchangeably, and they all refer to a problem with the soft discs that provide cushion between your vertebrae.
A disc is made up of a soft interior with a tougher exterior. Sometimes, the soft substance inside can push out, irritating the surrounding nerves. When this happens, you may feel pain or numbness radiating out into your arms or legs.
A herniated disc is usually the result of aging and long-term wear and tear, rather than a specific injury. Some people do not experience any pain at all, while others will need treatment to repair the problem.
Arthritis is a common condition, particularly in the elderly. It causes joint pain, swelling, and stiffness, and the back is one of the most common body parts affected. If you’ve also had pain in your hands, knees, or other joints, then arthritis could be the root cause of your back pain.
One of the most common factors that leads to back pain is obesity. Because the back—and particularly the lower back—is responsible for keeping your body upright, it’s no surprise that excess weight can cause back problems. Over time, this causes wear and tear and can result in a herniated disc or strains and sprains to the muscles and ligaments of your back.
What’s more, it can be harder to rehabilitate a back injury for an obese person. That’s why a healthy diet and daily exercise are essential to preventing and relieving back pain. But be careful—trying to do too much exercise at once can also make back pain worse.
Osteoporosis is a common condition among older women. It occurs when bones become weak or brittle, and it can make you more prone to fractures, even from minor injuries. That means that any kind of accident or trauma to the back can result in a serious injury.
Doctors recommend that menopausal women have regular bone-density tests to help anticipate problems before they become too severe. There are a number of foods and medicines that can improve bone density, but it’s much easier to prevent these issues than it is to treat them once they have progressed.
Diagnosis and Treatment
The first step towards managing your back pain is to speak with a doctor. He or she can help pinpoint the exact cause of the pain through a physical examination and MRI or CT scans.
Most types of back pain can be resolved through a combination of physical therapy (including stretches and other exercises), medication, and rest. In more severe cases, surgery can be done to repair damage to the spine.
While you may be tempted to “walk it off” and ignore mild back pain, remember that it’s always easier to resolve the issue early on—or to prevent it in the first place—than it is to fix a serious problem later.
Images used with permission from the Hughson Foundation