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About Back Pain

Back pain is pain felt in the back that usually originates from the muscles, nerves, bones, joints or other structures in the spine.

Back pain may have a sudden onset or can be a chronic pain; it can be constant or intermittent, stay in one place or radiate to other areas. It may be a dull ache, or a sharp or piercing or burning sensation. The pain may radiate into the arms and hands as well as the legs or feet, and may include symptoms other than pain. These symptoms may include tingling, weakness or numbness.

Causes

There are several potential sources and causes of back pain. However, the diagnosis of specific tissues of the spine as the cause of pain presents problems. This is because symptoms arising from different spinal tissues can feel very similar and is difficult to differentiate without the use of invasive diagnostic intervention procedures, such as local anesthetic blocks.

Diagnosis

In most cases of low back pain medical consensus advises not seeking an exact diagnosis but instead beginning to treat the pain.This assumes that there is no reason to expect that the person has an underlying problem. In most cases, the pain goes away naturally after a few weeks. Typical people who do seek diagnosis through imaging are not likely to have a better outcome than those who wait for the condition to resolve.

In cases in which the back pain has a persistent underlying cause, such as a specific disease or spinal abnormality, then it is necessary for the physician to differentiate the source of the pain and advise specific courses of treatment.

Management

The management goals when treating back pain are to achieve maximal reduction in pain intensity as rapidly as possible; to restore the individual's ability to function in everyday activities; to help the patient cope with residual pain; to assess for side-effects of therapy; and to facilitate the patient's passage through the legal and socioeconomic impediments to recovery. For many, the goal is to keep the pain to a manageable level to progress with rehabilitation, which then can lead to long term pain relief. Also, for some people the goal is to use non-surgical therapies to manage the pain and avoid major surgery, while for others surgery may be the quickest way to feel better.

Not all treatments work for all conditions or for all individuals with the same condition, and many find that they need to try several treatment options to determine what works best for them. The present stage of the condition (acute or chronic) is also a determining factor in the choice of treatment. Only a minority of back pain patients (most estimates are 1% - 10%) require surgery.


Surgery

Surgery may sometimes be appropriate for patients with:

Lumbar disc herniation or degenerative disc disease
Lumbar spinal stenosis from lumbar disc herniation, degenerative joint disease, or spondylolisthesis
Scoliosis
Compression fracture

Pregnancy

About 50% of women experience low back pain during pregnancy. Back pain in pregnancy may be severe enough to cause significant pain and disability and pre-dispose patients to back pain in a following pregnancy. No significant increased risk of back pain with pregnancy has been found with respect to maternal weight gain, exercise, work satisfaction, or pregnancy outcome factors such as birth weight, birth length, and Apgar scores.

Economics

Back pain is regularly cited by national governments as having a major impact on productivity, through loss of workers on sick leave. Some national governments, notably Australia and the United Kingdom, have launched campaigns of public health awareness to help combat the problem, for example the Health and Safety Executive's Better Backs campaign. In the United States lower back pain's economic impact reveals that it is the number one reason for individuals under the age of 45 to limit their activity, second highest complaint seen in physician's offices, fifth most common requirement for hospitalization, and the third leading cause for surgery.

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