What causes back pain and who is affected?
Back pain is one of the most common widespread ailments and affects men and women of all ages. The spinal column is one of the load-bearing elements in the human body. It is made up of 24 vertebrae, which are connected by intervertebral discs that permit them to move relative to one another. The sacrum and finally the coccyx form the end of the spine.
Pain can develop in any one or all three of the sections of the spine - the cervical (neck), the thoracic and the lumbar spine. Back pain is caused by diseases or injuries of the discs (for example, a prolapsed intervertebral disc) or joints between the vertebrae (for example, wear and tear, so-called "osteoarthritis of the facet joints") or by other conditions.
Back pain has advanced over the last years and decades to become the No. 1 widespread condition. Dr Holger Eggers, specialist for orthopaedics/accident surgery at the MedCenter in Bayreuth, talks about the subject of back pain and explains the need for medical treatment, if it persists.
Online test: chronic back pain
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Types of back pain
"Acute" back pain usually lasts for up to six weeks. If it continues beyond this period for up to 12 weeks it is called "subacute", while back pain that still persists after 12 weeks is called "chronic back pain".
Depending on whether unequivocal physical causes and findings are present or whether there are no clearly recognisable causes, we distinguish between
- non-specific back pain and
- specific back pain
Dr. Holger Eggers, specialist for orthopaedics/accident surgery at the MedCenter in Bayreuth, talks about specific, non-specific and chronic back pain.
Specific back pain
If the exact cause of the pain is known, we talk about "specific back pain".
This is caused, for instance, by injuries, intervertebral disc disease, inflammation or wear and tear of the joints between the vertebrae (so-called "osteoarthritis of the facet joints").
Non-specific back pain
Most cases can be allocated to the category of non-specific back pain. Here the exact cause of the pain cannot be diagnosed.
Dr Holger Eggers, specialist for orthopaedics/accident surgery at the MedCenter in Bayreuth, explains the effects of postural problems and too little physical exercise on the human back.
Symptoms and complaints
Almost everybody has experienced a "jab" or slight pain in the back. "It's my back again" is a phrase we often hear and our backs put up with a lot of stress every day. Hours spent sitting in the office, slumped posture in front of the PC, heavy lifting and carrying or bending down doing the gardening: a little back pain is part and parcel of daily life.
If the symptoms last longer, they should be taken more seriously. Do certain movements hurt? Does the pain radiate into the arms or legs, do you have a feeling of numbness? For example, while a prolapsed disc can cause agonising pain that radiates into a leg, wear and tear of the joints between the vertebrae is felt more as a dull, deep-seated back pain. The exact quality and severity of pain varies from patient to patient and depends on whether he has an acute injury, a muscular condition or wear and tear of the spine. Depending on the clinical picture, breathing may also be painful, for example, when the thoracic spine is affected, while headache and dizziness can result from pain in the cervical spine.
If the symptoms persist or return, it is advisable to consult a doctor and describe to him the characteristics of the pain. He will advise you on what possible treatments are available for your back pain: these treatment options range from wearing a support or brace to taking medication or physiotherapy or even an operation. An essential element of treatment is regular exercise: this strengthens the muscles, stabilises the spinal column and prevents pain.
The most common causes of back pain
The spinal column is a complex system consisting of vertebral bodies, intervertebral discs, muscles and ligaments1 . Pain arises when the interplay between these structures is disturbed. Common reasons are:
Stress leads to back pain
Mainly sedentary occupations and a lack of physical exercise in everyday life can give rise to muscular tension and back pain even if the spine itself is healthy.
Did you know that psychological tension such as stress at work or in our private lives causes the body to become tense? Read our white paper to learn more about the causes of back pain and the influence of stress on back health.
The discs are interposed between the vertebral bodies: they act as shock absorbers, can withstand great tension and compression loads and they prevent the vertebral bodies from rubbing against each other. If the discs' elasticity diminishes, the fibrous outer ring can tear. The gel-like nucleus then prolapses from the inside of the disc to cause a slipped disc.
If the prolapse presses on a nerve root, it can cause pain in the arm or leg with associated abnormal sensations such as pins and needles or numbness. A prolapse might even result in muscular paralysis.
Poor posture or heavy lifting can also displace intervertebral tissue. This results in faulty posture and functional disorders of the lumbar spine – also called "locking". This can also affect the joints between the vertebrae. One of the consequences of this is that the surrounding musculature goes into spasm and the patient adopts a guarding posture to ease the pain. In turn, this postural guarding puts more stress on other parts of the back and the pain can spread.
As we grow older, our spines are affected by changes due to wear and tear (so-called "degenerative changes"), such as osteoarthritis. Degenerative means that the consequences of the wear and tear are irreversible, although many respond well to treatment, for example, through the use of medical devices.
Wear and tear of the intervertebral discs causes the joint surfaces between the vertebrae to rub harder against each other. This overloading leads to joint degeneration, which is called osteoarthritis of the facet joints, if it affects the joints between the vertebral bodies (facet joints).
The lumbar spine is stabilised by muscles. The muscles over the front and sides of the abdomen also play an important role here. Stable torso musculature relieves stress on the intervertebral discs and the facet joints and safeguards the lumbar spine against overstrain. Back pain can develop if the muscles are weak or have developed asymmetrically. Individual muscles can be overloaded, grow hard or even shorten.
This is caused by poor posture, too little exercise, one-sided sports or even stress.
However, the cause of back pain may lie somewhere quite different, for example, in the feet. Our feet literally carry us through the day and bear our entire bodyweight, thus exposing them to tremendous stresses. Therefore, faulty foot architecture can also be a cause of back pain. Also leg length differences can lead to pelvic tilt and ultimately to back pain.
The good news: Many back problems resolve on their own within a few weeks. Non-specific low back pain is helped mainly by mobilisation treatment and, after consulting a doctor, by taking medication. Exercises to strengthen the musculature may also be suitable, for example medi's back exercises.
Prevention – tips for a strong back
All of us can relieve the strain on our backs in everyday life and ward off pain.
Exercises that benefit your back.
There are back strengthening exercises that you can quickly and easily integrate into your daily life. We worked with a physiotherapist to compile a few example exercises for you.
Try them out - your back will thank you!
- Exercise regularly: even just three moderate training sessions of 45 minutes each per week increase our well-being, bolster the immune system and keep us fit and nimble. Gentle sports such as swimming or power walking are particularly kind to our joints.
- Healthy diet: a balanced diet keeps us fit and helps us reduce overweight and relieve strain on the back.
- Clever lifting: whenever we lift heavy objects, we should squat down and put the strain on our leg muscles instead of "putting our back into it".
- Carry properly: it is best to carry heavy objects close to the body. Avoid one-sided loading of one arm.
- Stay active: everybody who spends long hours sitting at a desk should grab every opportunity to move around – for example, climb the stairs instead of taking the lift, stand up every now and then when on the telephone or go for a walk at lunchtime.
Back pain often starts at work. Sitting for hours on end or a faulty posture can strain muscles and joints and cause pain. This is especially true of jobs that require frequent bending, lifting or carrying heavy loads.
Click here to discover helpful tips and tricks from medi for a strong back in everyday working life.
Treatment of back pain
Back pain can be treated by a variety of methods. The doctor treating you will decide whether conservative treatment (without an operation) is possible or whether surgery is needed in serious cases.
Which medical devices are available and how do the medical devices for treating back pain differ?
Read in our white paper, which medical devices can help relieve persistent and chronic back pain.
Physiotherapy and massage
During physiotherapy, special back exercises are carried out under supervision. These can mobilise the spine, relieve tension and strengthen the torso musculature. Massages, ultrasound therapy or electrotherapy can promote healing and relieve pain.
The doctor decides which exercises are most appropriate for the patient. medi's physiotherapy exercises are very suitable for many patients. For example, they help strengthen the spine and ease pain.
Medication and ointments
Medication that relieves pain and inhibits inflammation or ointments can help relieve pain in the short term. This prevents uncomfortable postural guarding. You should consult a doctor before taking any tablets.
Strong muscles around the spinal column protect it against wear and tear, muscular tension and pain. Back pain can be countered by regular physical exercise at a back school, with special exercises for the spine and gentle sports such as swimming or power walking.
The exercise programme has been conceived so that a complete set of exercises to strengthen and stretch your back can be completed in about 20 minutes. It would be ideal if you could go through this programme two or three times a week. Important: please ask your doctor whether any of the exercises are unsuitable for you.
Supports and orthoses for the back
Supports and orthoses are medical aids specifically designed for the treatment of muscle, tendon, joint and back pain. They adapt perfectly to the anatomical conditions of the body, can relieve pain and contribute to mobility. Depending on the type of disease, various aids are used. Supports for the lower back can stabilise and relieve the lumbar spine.
More stable supports, so-called orthoses, can straighten the lumbar spine and provide more intensive support and relief. These aids can offset physical limitations, allowing for greater freedom of movement, activity and a better quality of life.
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Would you like to know more about how you can be stylish even with a back orthosis? Our guide will show you how! Take a look at the outfit tips for a wide variety of occasions.
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Give the lower back support where it is most needed with supports and braces from medi
medi's range of supports and braces offer the right medical device for many different conditions. The products convince patients because they are comfortable to wear, are made of skin-friendly and breathable materials and are available in a wide range of sizes – so everybody can find exactly the support or brace they need. Thanks to clever details such as practical hand loops or particularly soft borders, all medi’s medical devices are easy to handle and do not cut into the skin, even when worn for long periods.
Tense, sprained or strained – the lower back is particularly often affected by pain and injuries. This is where medi's supports and braces come into their own: they can stabilise the back, relieve muscular tension and ease pain on movement. The medical devices achieve these positive effects with their multidimensional mode of action. They stabilise the lumbar spine, relieve pain and enhance mobility. This can prevent further loss of muscle mass, so-called "muscle atrophy".
Click here for more information about medi's back braces and supports.
Simply use the practical filter function on the left side of the screen to find the right product for your diagnosis.
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An overview of the different causes of back pain and what can be done about it
1 Klein, Dr. med. Christoph (2014): Orthopädie für Patienten. Medizin verstehen. Remagen: Verlag Michels-Klein, S. 277.