Back and Spine Conditions

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What are the different types of back and spine conditions?

Spine and back conditions include a variety of musculoskeletal and nerve problems. Your spine has 33 bones, or vertebrae, with joints between each one of them. Cartilage-like spinal discs between the vertebrae act as cushions for the bones. The spine also contains ligaments, tendons, muscles, spinal fluid, the spinal cord, and nerves exiting the spinal canal to supply the body. Injury or damage to any of these tissues or structures can cause spine and back problems resulting in pain, back spasms, and other symptoms.

Common spine and back disorders include:

Seek prompt medical care for back and neck symptoms that persist. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for an injury involving the back or spine. If the injury is severe, do not move the person unless absolutely necessary. Try to keep them still until medical help arrives at the scene.

What are symptoms of back and spine conditions?

The symptoms of back and spine conditions can vary depending on the specific problem.

Common symptoms of back and spine conditions

Pain is a common symptom of many back and spine conditions. If you throw your back out after a weekend of raking leaves, you’re most likely experiencing a pulled muscle and it can be very difficult to move without pain. In addition to muscle, tendon and ligament issues, some of these conditions cause neurological symptoms because of a pinched nerve in the back.

Your backbone protects your spinal cord very well, but nerves branch off the spinal cord and exit the spinal column through small openings in the spinal joints. Conditions that narrow these openings—either slowly over time or suddenly—can compress a nerve or nerve root causing severe nerve-related symptoms.

Depending on the cause, the pain can be sharp, stabbing, dully, achy or cramping. The pain may always be present or it can come and go. Often, the pain from a back injury or spinal condition limits activities because it worsens with movement. A common site for the pain is the low back. In fact, low back pain is one of the most common medical problems in the United States.

Other common symptoms of back and spine conditions include:

  • Back spasms

  • Difficulty with balance or coordination

  • Numbness, tingling or weakness in the extremities

  • Pain radiating down the arm or leg to the ankle or foot

  • Stiffness in the spine

  • Weakness in the legs leading to foot drop

Serious symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition

Spinal injuries can be serious or even life threatening in some cases. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:

  • Changes in level of consciousness

  • Deformity or abnormal position of the back or neck such as twisting

  • Inability to move the neck or back

  • Loss of bowel or bladder control

  • Severe back or neck pain

With any injury involving excessive force to the back or neck, do not move the person—even if they aren’t experiencing symptoms. Help them stay calm until the emergency medical team arrives.

What causes back and spine conditions?

Acute trauma can cause such spinal injuries as whiplash and vertebral fractures. Chronic strain on the back can cause injuries that develop gradually, such as stress fractures in the spine. However, many back and spine problems develop from arthritis or degeneration of the spine over time. In fact, 95% of people have some kind of deterioration in their spine by age 50. This makes back and spine conditions more common in people older than 50 years of age. As people age, osteoporosis also becomes more likely, which can contribute to back and spine problems.

What are the risk factors for back and spine conditions?

Age is a main risk factor for many back and spine problems due to degenerative changes. Risk factors for back and spine conditions also include:

  • Being overweight or obese, which puts excess pressure on your spine

  • Improper lifting techniques and body mechanics

  • Participating in contact sports

  • Repetitive strenuous activities, which puts chronic stress and strain on the spine

  • Smoking

Keep in mind, not all people with risk factors will get back or spine conditions. Likewise, people with back issues may not have any of these risk factors. Some back and spinal conditions run in families, so genetics are also at play.

Reducing your risk of back and spine conditions

Reducing your risk of health problems means changing risk factors that are under your control. You may be able to lower your risk of developing a back or spine condition by:

  • Getting regular physical exercise to strengthen your back and support your spine

  • Learning correct posture, body mechanics, and ways to lift heavy objects

  • Maintaining a healthy weight

  • Quitting smoking

  • Taking breaks and stretching your back throughout the day

  • Wearing protective equipment during sports and recreational activities

Seeing your doctor for regular checkups is an important part of maintaining your health and reducing your risk of back and spine problems. When a problem arises, seeking early medical care—before the problem gets serious—offers the best chance of a full recovery.

How are back and spine conditions treated?

Back and spine treatments can vary for the different problems. In general, treatment goals include correcting physical problems, improving symptoms, and preventing future problems. Sometimes, rest, ice, and anti-inflammatory medicine can improve symptoms and heal soft tissue damage—like pulled muscles—in the back and around the spine. However, corticosteroid injections or spine surgery may be necessary in some cases.

Physical therapy is often a part of treating back and spine conditions. A physical therapist can teach you how to protect your back and work with you to strengthen it. Physical therapy can speed your recovery and help prevent recurrences.

What are the potential complications of back and spine conditions?

The complications of back and spine conditions depend on the underlying cause. Back problems are a leading cause of disability, chronic pain, and missed work for Americans. Sometimes, doctors can’t cure the root cause. But seeing your doctor early can help prevent permanent disability and improve your quality of life.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Aug 23
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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