5 Causes of Back and Neck Pain or Discomfort

Written by Robert Talac, MD, PhD

If you have ever suffered from discomfort in your back or neck, you know how debilitating the pain can be. The spine provides rigidity, stability, and flexibility all at the same time so that you can complete all your daily tasks and activities. Through the use of a series of ligaments, tendons, intervertebral discs and facet joints, the spine provides the mechanical connection your body needs. As with any type of mechanical system, breakdowns can happen at any time with back and neck pain or discomfort as the result. We’ll discuss the five common causes of back and neck pain.


#1. Disc Herniation
Disc herniation is one of the most common causes of back and neck pain. It goes by many different names such as a pinched nerve, and bulging or burning disc, but no matter what you call it, the pain it creates can be intense and long-lasting.

Pain in the legs, known as sciatica, is often the first sign of a herniated disc indicating a problem with the lumbar spine (low back). Since 90% of herniated discs occur in this area, leg pain is by far the most common symptom. Other symptoms may include weakness when raising the leg, tingling and an intense pain.

Physical therapy, gentle stretching, and exercise are the most common types of treatment for a herniated disc. These conservative treatments can be remarkably effective and can cut the need for more aggressive intervention. In cases where non-operative treatments are unsuccessful, you may be evaluated for surgical procedures.

#2. Spinal Stenosis
Spinal stenosis is defined as an abnormal narrowing of the bony channel that contains the spinal nerves or spinal cord. Unlike many other spinal problems, spinal stenosis tends to come on slowly and gradually gets worse over time with the pain becoming more frequent and intense.

Spinal stenosis is typically treated with a combination of gentle exercise and changes in activity. You may notice that some symptoms of spinal stenosis can be relieved by sitting or lying down, maintaining a flexed forward position, or avoiding certain activities that bring on the spinal stenosis symptoms. In severe cases, spinal epidural injections may be used to deal with the pain and ease discomfort.
#3. Sprains and Strains
If you have a sudden onset of pain or discomfort in your back and/or neck, the problem could be a simple sprain or strain. Overdoing an exercise regimen, moving the wrong way, or falling can result in a sprain or strain. The good news is that with time and proper treatment, the pain and discomfort usually go away on its own.

If you have suffered a sprain or strain to your back or neck, it is best to see your doctor for a definitive diagnosis. Don't let what you think is a small sprain or strain turn out to be a bigger problem.

If the issue is a simple sprain or strain, doctors normally recommend rest and limited activity until you feel better. You may also benefit from physical therapy and gentle exercise such as water aerobics and stretching exercises to help you recover and heal faster.

#4. Spinal Osteoarthritis
Spinal osteoarthritis is a specific diagnosis defined as the breakdown of cartilage in the joints or discs in the neck or lower back. In some cases, it can create bone spurs causing painful pressure on the nerves going to the spinal column.

If diagnosed with spinal osteoarthritis, you may receive conservative or very aggressive treatment depending on the issue; for example, rest and hot or cold packs or specific medications. If unsuccessful, surgery may be required, which is generally recommended only as a last resort for patients with osteoarthritis.

#5. Vertebral Compression Fracture
A vertebral compression fracture can be a serious condition that creates pain in your back or neck, depending on where the fracture occurs. Compression fractures happen as a result of tiny cracks in the vertebrae; the spine’s bones. Over time, hairline fractures can cause the entire vertebral body to collapse also known as a spinal or vertebral compression fracture.

The first sign of a spinal compression fracture is often sudden and severe back pain or a change in posture. Instead of standing tall, you may notice that you now have a stooped appearance. You should not ignore this early-warning  sign; as with any medical condition, early intervention can often make it easier to treat and recover.

There are several options for treating your spinal compression fracture, which can include medications designed to strengthen bones and prevent the condition from getting worse. Other treatment options are bed rest, pain medications, limited physical activity and bracing of the back and/or neck.

Understanding the causes of back and neck pain can give you a head start on proper treatment. If you are suffering from any kind of discomfort in your back or neck, please contact a doctor who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of spinal disorders.

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