What You Need to Know About Back Pain

Learn the most common back pain conditions and treatments

A woman in workout clothes holds her back before stretching.

Learn the most common back pain conditions and treatments

Whether it’s a dull ache, a sharp stabbing feeling, or something in between, you’re likely to experience back pain at some point in your life. This common problem affects eight out of 10 people, and is one of the most frequent complaints physicians hear from patients. 


A number of factors can contribute to back pain, including overuse, injuries, arthritis, and weak back and abdominal muscles. Lower back pain, or pain that radiates down into the leg, often may be due to a muscle or nerve injury.


Most of the time, back pain lasts for a day or two and then goes away on its own. However, if back pain persists for more than three days, or occurs suddenly after an accident or for no apparent reason, it’s best to call your doctor.


“Most back pain episodes are self-limiting. They go away on their own, usually within 24 to 48 hours. If they don’t, it’s reasonable to seek medical attention with your primary care physician, or, depending on the severity of the symptoms, one of our local emergency rooms or urgent care locations,” said James Bruffey, MD, orthopedic surgeon at Scripps Clinic Torrey Pines.


Back pain often develops without a specific cause. Your doctor can help identify the problem with a test or imaging study, or possibly refer you to a spine specialist.

Conditions commonly linked to back pain include:

Spondylolisthesis

Spondylolisthesis is a condition in which a bone (vertebra) in the spine slips forward onto the bone below it. In adults, the most common cause is abnormal wear on the cartilage and bones. 

Spondylosis

This is a general term for age-related wear and tear of the cervical spine and associated with osteoarthritis. It can also refer to a crack or stress fracture in the backbone. 

Spinal stenosis

Spinal stenosis is the narrowing of the spinal column, often in the neck or lower back, which causes pressure on the spinal cord. It can lead to a pinched nerve. Spinal stenosis may also be caused by arthritis of the spine, usually in middle-aged or older people.

Herniated disc

A herniated (slipped) disk occurs when all or part of a disk is forced through a weakened part of the disk. This may place pressure on nearby nerves or the spinal cord that leads to pain and/or numbness and weakness experienced in the neck, back, legs, feet, arms and fingers. Slipped disks occur more often in middle-aged and older men, usually after strenuous activity. 

Scoliosis

Scoliosis is an abnormal curving of the spine. It’s most often seen in children and teens, especially girls. Curving generally gets worse during a growth spurt. 

Degenerative disc disease

Degenerative disc disease is the breakdown of soft tissue discs in the spine. It can be due to aging, injury or loss of moisture. 

Sciatica

Sciatica refers to pain, weakness, numbness, or tingling in the leg. It is caused by injury to or pressure on the sciatic nerve. Sciatica is a symptom of another medical problem. It is not a medical condition on its own. 

Treatment options for chronic back pain

Depending on what’s causing your back pain and how severe it is, treatment can range from home care and physical therapy to injections and surgery. 

Try non-invasive remedies first

In most cases, you can treat mild back pain with over-the-counter, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) such as aspirin, ibuprofen or naproxen. If over-the-counter pain relievers aren’t effective, your physician may recommend a prescription-strength NSAID.


Also, consider complementary therapies. Massage therapy can help relax tight muscles that cause pain and stiffness. Chiropractic treatments and acupuncture also may help relieve pain and promote healing.  

Consider surgery for some conditions

Surgery should be your last option, but it may be the best one for specific conditions such as a compressed nerve or a collapsed or slipped disc. Generally, back surgery either relieves pressure from the nerve that is causing the pain (decompression), or immobilizes the segment that is pressing on the nerve (fusion).

 

Orthopedic surgeons may treat many of these conditions with minimally invasive surgery, which involves one or more small incisions instead of a large incision.

 

Compared to standard open surgeries, multiple studies have shown that minimally invasive procedures may result in less blood loss, less pain after surgery and reduced scarring. Recovery time often is faster as well.


To learn more about different orthopedic conditions and treatments, visit our glossary of orthopedic terms.