FAQs About Back Pain

Back Pain FAQs | Neck Pain FAQs | Spine Surgery FAQs | Non-Surgical Treatment FAQs



What is back pain?

Back pain is very common. The spine is a complex structure composed of bones, muscles, nerves, and joints. When pain in the back gradually increases, most likely the patient has something defective in their musculoskeletal spine.

What causes back pain?

Most often back pain develops from a disruption to the normal functioning of muscles, ligaments, cartilage or a pinched nerve. Back pain caused by damage or disease to your spine will most likely require surgical intervention to cure the problem.

What are the symptoms of a back pain?

Back pain is most common in the lumbar (lower back) region, although it can be felt anywhere along your spine, from your neck down to your hips. The lower back (lumbar spine) area is the most frequently reported area of pain. The neck (cervical spine) is another common pain area. The middle (thoracic spine) area is least reported due to the rib cage and sternum providing structural support of the spine, usually resulting in less problems and pain in the middle region. Back pain symptoms can include pain that runs down your legs or arms, muscle ache and spasms, and limited range of motion.

What are some conditions that are often linked to back pain?

Some of the common back problems include bulging or herniated disc, spinal stenosis, scoliosis, spondylolisthesis, and degenerative disc disease.

What’s the difference between a slipped disc, a bulging disc, a ruptured disc and a herniated disc?

All four cases occur when discs become weakened over time and part of a disc is sticking out between the bony parts of the vertebra.

What’s the difference between a sprain and a strain?

While someone may argue that the two words are different, that a sprain is a more serious injury than a strain, in reality, sprain and strain have evolved to mean essentially the same things to doctors and lawyers. Both words relate to an overworked muscle, ligament or tendon that is overstretched.

Some may argue that strain relates to stretching or tearing of muscles or tendons, while sprain relates to tearing of ligaments or tissues in a joint area. For example, if bones in a joint are forced beyond a comfortable range of motion, the joint may be sprained. Another word that you may hear is “muscle spasm,” where a muscle locks up in an excruciating, hard lump.

What’s the difference between a simple strain or a more serious herniated disc?

Most people erroneously think that the more excruciating the pain, the more likely that you herniated a disc. That is not the case at all. In some cases a back spasm can knock you down to your knees. A person can have excruciating pain, but if it is mostly in the low back, it’s probably not a herniated disc. Typically, a herniated disc in your back will radiate pain down into your leg, or pain will radiate down your arm if you have a blown disc in your neck.

What are the spine diagnostic tests Dr. Gus Varnavas will order?

Types of diagnostics include:
X-rays show bones and the space between bones. Although X-rays are of limited value to muscle-related back pain cases, Dr. Gus Varnavas may conduct X-rays to detect possible fractured vertebrae or narrowing of disc space.
MRIs (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) and CT scans provide images of soft tissues and nerves in the spine, including discs and joints. This is valuable information to your physician in determining the cause of your pain. These tests provide a medical photograph of your body and are painless.
Myelograms can reveal the amount of damage in the spine. They are used to determine if surgery is necessary. If it is, myelograms provide a surgeon with key information to ensure the success of surgery.

What are some possible diagnoses of back pain?

Some possible diagnoses of back pain include spinal muscle or ligament strain, herniated discs, arthritis, osteoporosis, and curvature of the spine.

What is degenerative disc disease?

A natural byproduct of aging is the loss of resiliency in spinal discs and a greater tendency for them to herniate, especially when placed under a weighty load, like when we lift heavy objects. Additionally, some people have a family history of degenerative disc disease, which increases their own risk of developing it. When a natural disc herniates or becomes badly degenerated, it loses its shock-absorbing ability, which can narrow the space between vertebrae.

What is scoliosis?

Scoliosis is a disease characterized by an abnormal curvature to the spine, in which the vertebrae twist like a bent corkscrew. In less severe cases, scoliosis may cause the bones to twist slightly, making the hips or ribs appear uneven. Scoliosis can progress into a serious health problem if bones become so severely twisted that they compress vital organs or if the spinal deformity is so severe that spine health and posture is threatened. If this happens, surgery may be necessary. If left untreated, severe cases of scoliosis can shorten a person's life span. The best way to care for scoliosis is to achieve early detection and take measures to minimize its progression.

How can osteoporosis impact the spine?

Osteoporosis can have extremely serious consequences on the spine. Because osteoporosis often progresses undetected, the first indication could be as disastrous as a bone fracture. These fractures typically strike an area of the body that carries the most stress, such as the spine, wrists or hips. Spinal fractures can occur without notice, as vertebrae simply compress. Compression fractures can be very painful and may lead to stooped posture, loss of height and risk of serious neurological damage to spinal nerves.

What should I do when my back hurts?

Back pain most often gets better on its own without seeing a doctor. There are some self-help remedies to relieve back pain can include staying active, rest and recovery, swimming, heat or ice, and over the counter painkillers / anti-inflammatory. You should see a spine specialists immediately if any of the following symptoms persist including fever, pain in chest, swelling, loss of bladder and bowel control, numbness and tingling, and having pain keep you up at night.

What non-surgical options are available?

Non-surgical treatments for chronic back pain can include physical therapy, acupuncture, spinal injections, nerve blocks, and specialized spine therapy like McKenzie method.

How can I avoid back pain?

Prevention is the best strategy for coping with back pain and can save a great deal of time and agony. Become an educated health care consumer by learning about effective prevention methods.

Stretch before and after strenuous activity.
Use good posture at all times, and do not slouch.
When standing, keep your weight balanced on both feet rather than shifting it back and forth.
Sleep on a firm mattress.
When sitting for long periods of time, take frequent breaks.
Maintain a healthy weight and try to avoid weight gain, especially around the mid-section, which can take a toll on the low back.
Don’t try to lift objects that are too heavy for you. When lifting, use the strength in your legs more than the back.
Avoid smoking, which accelerates degeneration in the spine.

Why do so many people suffer from back pain?

With age, our bones and muscles lose tone and elasticity. They become less able to properly cushion the vertebrae and more likely to spasm or break. When a spinal disc ruptures or bulges, it places pressure on the surrounding nerves and results in pain signals traveling to the brain. Other factors such as smoking, obesity, poor posture and lack of sleep can also contribute to back pain.

How can I incorporate ergonomics into my everyday lifestyle?

Applying ergonomics can help prevent repetitive motion injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome, particularly if you are constantly working at a computer. Use a headset for lengthy or frequent telephone work.

A footrest should be used if, after adjusting the height of the chair, feet do not rest flat on the floor.
When performing daily tasks, alternate between sitting and standing or take small walking breaks throughout the day.
Position the monitor directly in front of the user to avoid excessive twisting of the neck.
When typing, press the keys gently; do not bang them or hold them down for long periods.
Keep your shoulders, arms, hands, and fingers relaxed.


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Need an Appointment?

Gus Varnavas, MD — at Community Hospital of Anaconda — specializes in the treatment of back and neck pain and strives to help people return to activity. Request an appointment with Dr. Varnavas in his office in Anaconda, MT.