Contributed by Dr. Adam Friedman (ND), Licensed Naturopathic Physician & Exercise Physiologist
Back pain is one of the most common medical complaints. A whopping 80% of people in the developed world will see their physician with symptoms of back pain, at some point in their lives. It is a leading cause of missed workdays and temporary disability.
It comes in many forms and presents in multiple ways. The back has many muscles, tendons and ligaments. Each may attach to the vertebral column that surround and protect the spinal cord. All of these structures may, at some point, become injured or through chronic neglect, inflamed or irritated. Then there’s the possibility of something called, ‘referred pain’; which may be coming from an internal organ, like the pancreas, spleen, liver or intestines, that when infected, inflamed or blocked, can send pain signals to other areas of the body, most frequently the back.
Let’s not forget the vertebral column itself, which has many structures, that when, injured or inflamed can send its own pain signals. When the cushiony disk that separates two vertebral bodies is injured (bulges to one side or degenerates), the vertebrae, muscles or ligaments can impinge or press on the nerves, as they come out of the spinal column. Injuries to the spinal column may be quite severe, to the point of paralysis.
There are also structural causes of back pain such as scoliosis, kyphosis and lordosis – abnormal curves in the spine that impinge nerves or derange muscle, tendon and ligamentous structures.
Because the back is so large, pain may present in many different ways, depending on the type of injury, pathology or chronic ailment.
Persistent aching, stiffness all along the spine and its associated muscles, joints, ligaments and/or tendons
Sharp, focused pain in the upper, middle or lower back, from improper lifting biomechanics or straining to lift something too heavy, or from an awkward angle
Radiating pain that starts in the low back and runs down the outside of the buttocks into the legs (perhaps all the way down to the toes)
Recognizing the most common causes of back pain and learning the best ways to move your body safely will greatly reduce the likelihood of injuring your back. Proper lifting techniques, maintaining adequate range of motion, improving strength, flexibility and not sitting for long periods without changing positions will go a long way to improving your back health
Conventional medicine tends to prescribe pain medication for both acute and chronic back pain. Diagnostic imaging may be beneficial for determining the location and extent of an injury (herniated disk, enlarged visceral organs, etc.), though it may not be as helpful in removing underlying issues, such as poor lifting mechanics, workspace environment and the like.
Depending on the location, severity and/or root cause of the back pain, treatment may include, herbal anodynes (pain reducing herbs), acupuncture, physical medicine (chiropractic, osteopathic, naturopathic manipulations and/or mobilizations, etc.). Counseling, for pain that may be the result of chronic emotional stress, would also be an option.