The One Thing Everyone Should Know About Back Pain
And why getting to the bottom of it can be a challenge
I was recently interviewed by a reporter from a major online sports magazine about my thoughts on the latest elite athlete's exit from his sport due to back pain. I've been involved in many interviews like this over the years and consider it an honor that my opinion is sought. But as I reflect on each one, no matter the publication, reporter or athlete, their is always something I must point out for the public to understand - "Back Pain" is not a clinical diagnosis.
This is sometimes a new revelation for people because we're so used to describing our back pain symptoms, not discussing their causes. The easist example I can use to illustrate my point is this: You're on the phone with your Aunt Mildred and she detects a change in your voice. "You sound like you have a runny nose. Are you ill, dear?" She asks. You don't tell her you have "Runny Noseitis" You respond with: "I have a cold." The runny nose is a symptom of the cold, it isn't the cause.
Now, let's return to the subject of back pain. It doesn't happen in isolation. It is caused by something. And there are several conditions that can manifest back pain in a patient. For example, in the case of radiculopathy, (usually either cervical or lumbar depending on where the spine is affected), nerve roots near the vertebrae have been compressed. These damaged nerve roots can result in weakness, pain or numbness in the back, shoulders, neck and/or arms.
Some other conditions that can cause back pain are related directly to the spine, while others affect different organ systems entirely, but make the pain appear as though it is coming from the spine. From a physician's perspective, this is one of the reasons why diagnosis the underlying cause of the pain can be difficult. We can't open you up to see what's actually going on, so we've got to do some detective work basked on the way you describe your pain symptoms.
When you have pain that seems to have hung around for years, once you finally seek treatment it can be hard to descirbe the details of the pain with clarity. It just hurts. That's understandable. But the more detail you can give, the better able your physician will be to accurately diagnose the underlying cause of the pain and effectively treat it.
Elite athlete or not, understanding that back pain is your body's way of telling you something is going on with your spine is important. The earlier you treat the root cause of the pain, the more likely it is that the pain will subside in the shortest amount of time possible.