4 Sources of Back Pain: Simply Explained
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Back Pain and the Central Nervous System
Ouch! You're facing back pain and you'd really love some relief. Your spine acts as the main highway of your central nervous system. Physically speaking, pain is an electrical signal that travels from the affected area along nerves to your brain. If the source of the pain is a hot stove, then you'll react quickly and remove your hand from the source. The response to pain stimuli is so ingrained over your lifetime that your body can't react unconsciously.
But what happens when the source of the pain isn't obvious? In that case, you can't simply stop experiencing the pain, you'll need to dig a bit deeper. Was there a change in your lifestyle that's causing the new pain to show up? Perhaps your new shoes aren't broken in yet and you have some blisters to deal with. When the pain occurs abruptly and subsides relatively quickly, you'd be said to be experiencing acute pain. Acute pain typically doesn't require special attention and is often due to an obvious source.
When the pain is coming from a nonobvious source, you may be suffering from chronic pain. Chronic pain refers to pain that continues to affect you over time. Contrary to popular belief, chronic pain can take many forms and doesn't necessarily have to be dull or throbbing. In some people, chronic pain might be quite severe and can drastically impact one's quality of life.
How do nerves work?
Just like the electrical system in a house, your nerves are the wires of your body. Your spine is like the electrical box in your home. It takes signals from the outside and transports them through your body to be processed by your brain. Our nervous system isn't perfect, though, and sometimes we receive pain signals that are seemingly coming from the wrong places.
Sometimes this comes from a problem that has gotten worse and sometimes there's simply a misinterpretation of the source. If you've been experiencing pain in your lower back, you might be walking differently. This change in walking might lead you to experience muscle pain in your leg. If the back pain has been around for a while, you might have gotten used to it. In that case, the new pain might be "louder" than the root cause.
To fix this issue, you might try to relieve the pain in your legs. The temporary relief might be promising, so you consider the problem fixed. If the back pain has subsided, then it would be logical to think the problem was in your legs. The truth, though, is that the source of the problem was resolved through other means. You might have finally broken in those shoes or you may have lost weight. Regardless of the ultimate treatment for the pain you may experience, it can be useful to understand some common types of back pain. Through the remainder of this article, we'll explore four sources of back pain and dig a bit deeper into how they occur.
Slipped, Herniated, or Bulging Discs
Your spine contains bones called vertebrae and between each of those bones are spongy, cushions called discs. Each disc serves several purposes: it allows your back to bend, provides cushioning as vertebrae move, and simply connects different vertebrae to each other. The discs are made of two main parts. In the middle of each disc is a gel-like substance that contributes to the spine's ability to handle your back movement. Surrounding this inner "gel" is a tougher, fibrous substance which provides more structure to the spinal column and support for movement.
It's common to hear of someone experiencing back pain due to a slipped or herniated disk. When a person has a herniated disc, they're experiencing what happens when a disc's outer substance has weakened and the inner portion has protruded outward. This outward bulge can interfere with other tissues around the spine (e.g., pinched nerves). There are many causes of herniated discs, most commonly it's brought on by physical exertion, traumatic accidents, or aging.
Sciatica is the term for pain related to the sciatic nerve. Your sciatic nerve runs from your lower back down to each leg. As mentioned in the previous section, a pinched nerve can be the result of a herniated disc. When the pinched nerve happens to be the sciatic nerve, sciatica is the usual end result. The pain coming from your sciatic nerve often shows up as lower back pain, but sometimes can move down into your legs. Sciatica varies in seriousness, sometimes sciatica can be resolved with no treatment while in other cases it may require surgery or other advanced medical attention.
Muscle Injuries: Strains and Tears
The major muscle groups in your back are subject to the same strains and tears that can be found in other areas of the body. Typically a strain can occur when you exert effort in a way that you're not used to. For example, if you spend one day a year mulching your landscaping, then you may experience a back strain from hauling. The cause of the strain may be overstretching of one or more back muscles. If a strained muscle is pushed too far, then the strain may become a muscle tear. Proper stretching and not attempting to do too much without rest can help you avoid muscle issues. Further, back strengthening exercises can also help prevent the occurrence of muscle injuries.
Inflammation is the result of your body attempting to fix a problem its experiencing. It occurs when the white blood cells and other tools of the immune system attack a particular area of the body in an attempt to resolve an issue. Arthritis, at a basic level, is inflammation of a particular joint. When that joint is in your back or affects your posture, then you'd experience back pain due to arthritis. There are many types and causes of arthritis, but it's common to experience a form of arthritis called osteoarthritis as you age. Arthritis is usually a chronic condition and can persist for many years.
Do you have back pain?
It's wise to resolve minor problems before they become major issues. When you're experiencing back pain, do not hesitate to seek help. You deserve to live a pain-free life! If your back pain is affecting your day-to-day, you must look to resolve the root causes while you're addressing the symptoms. Dr. Inman's goal is to find the root cause of your pain and help you take the necessary steps to remove it from your life. She wants to help you progress along your health journey and be a happier, healthier you!