This brief NINDS document covers the basics of back pain. For more information, also see “Low Back Pain Information”.
What is Back Pain?
Back pain is a symptom that can arise from many causes. It can range from a dull, annoying ache to absolute agony. Many cases of back pain are caused by stresses on the muscles and ligaments that support the spine. Sedentary jobs and lifestyles may create a vulnerability to this type of stress or damage. Obesity, which increases both the weight on the spine and the pressure on the discs, is another factor. Strenuous sports such as football and gymnastics can also damage the back.
Is there any treatment?
Limited rest combined with appropriate exercise and education is often the primary mode of therapy. Nonsteroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs — alone or in combination with steroid injections, analgesics, muscle relaxants, or anti-depressants — may be added to the therapy program. Acute back pain often goes away by itself in a few days or weeks. An ice bag or hot water bottle applied to the back may also help to alleviate pain. Prolonged bed rest is not beneficial because it weakens muscles. A physician should be notified immediately if there is no relief from pain after a few days in bed, if pain is severe or recurs, if radiating pain, numbness, tingling, or weakening occurs in the arms or legs, if bowel or bladder dysfunction occurs, if a child or elderly person has back pain, or if fever and/or vomiting occurs with back pain.
What is the prognosis?
Recommendations for preventing initial and recurring episodes of back pain include: regular exercise, stretching before participation in sporting activities, quitting smoking, losing weight, maintaining correct posture, using comfortable, supportive seats while driving, sleeping on the side with knees drawn up or on the back with a pillow under bent knees, lifting by bending at the knees rather than the waist, avoiding standing or working in any one position for too long, and reducing emotional stress that causes muscle tension.
What research is being done?
Within the NINDS research programs, back pain is addressed primarily through studies associated with general pain research. NINDS vigorously pursues a research program seeking new treatments for pain and nerve damage with the ultimate goal of reversing debilitating conditions such as back pain.
American Chronic Pain Association (ACPA)
P.O. Box 850
Rocklin, CA 95677-0850
Tel: 916-632-0922 800-533-3231
National Chronic Pain Outreach Association (NCPOA)
P.O. Box 274
Millboro, VA 24460
NINDS health-related material is provided for information purposes only and does not necessarily represent endorsement by or an official position of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke or any other Federal agency. Advice on the treatment or care of an individual patient should be obtained through consultation with a physician who has examined that patient or is familiar with that patient’s medical history.
Last Reviewed: July 2001
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