Back pain: types, causes and treatment
Updated: December 2018
We call it the “disease of the century” because if the studies are to be believed, no less than 80 % of the population will suffer from back pain at some point in their lives. The term “back pain” covers a number of problems such as lumbago, chronic lower back pain, sciatica, and slipped discs, which all have one thing in common — the pain is located in the spine. Back pain can therefore have multiple causes.
Types of back pain
Back pain can be classified into three groups. If the pain is located at the top of the back or in the neck bones (cervical spine), it is known in medical terms as cervicalgia. If the pain is located in the lower back, around the lumbar vertebrae, it is called lumbar or lower back pain. Finally, if the pain is located in the middle of the back around the thoracic vertebrae, it is referred to as thoracic or middle back pain.
Cervicalgia (neck pain) is pain felt in the cervical spine that generally wears off in a few days and is often associated with poor posture or stress.
Lower back pain is pain felt in the lower part of the back and can prevent even the slightest movement. It is mostly caused by sudden or prolonged movements, or by staying in the same position for too long. It is the most common type of back pain.
Thoracic or middle back pain, which is the specific focus of this article, is pain felt in the middle of the back up to the base of the neck, around the thoracic vertebrae. The thoracic spine, which acts as a support structure for the rib cage, is made up of vertebrae that are less mobile than the others, and any problem in this area can cause pain and/or feelings of stiffness or restricted movement.
Two other, very common types of pain can also be classified:
Herniated (slipped) disc: this occurs in the intervertebral discs located between the vertebrae, which give the spine its flexibility and act as shock absorbers. If the soft inner part of the disc starts to protrude, it can press on the nerves or on the spinal cord. This is known as a slipped disc. It most commonly affects the lumbar vertebrae, which we are heavily reliant on in everyday life.
Sciatica: When a slipped disc presses on the sciatic nerve, the pain can spread down the entire length of the leg, referred to as sciatica.
Causes of middle or thoracic back pain
Middle back pain can have various causes. Most of the time, it results from a fall, sudden movements, or from staying in the same position for too long. Middle back pain usually sets in gradually. The causes can be classified as follows:
- Mechanical: when staying in the same position for too long
- Traumatic: following an accident, a fall, or a hard impact
- Rheumatological: mostly after the age of 60
- Degenerative: problems related to ageing or a sedentary lifestyle (with little or no physical activity)
- Physiological: pregnancy, menstruation and menopause can all cause middle back pain
- Finally, stress and anxiety can cause pain as a result of tension in the back muscles
However, middle back pain can also be a sign of cardiovascular (heart or blood vessel) problems, lung or organ problems, or conditions such as scoliosis. It is therefore important to consult a doctor if you experience back pain for a prolonged period.
Treating middle back pain: treatments and prevention
Treating back pain
If the back pain is non-specific, the treatment will consist of taking painkillers and doing exercises to increase your muscle strength and flexibility. In other cases, the back pain must be treated according to its cause. For example, if the pain is linked to a musculoskeletal problem, osteopathy, physiotherapy or massage therapy could be considered. If the pain is stress-related, some simple breathing or relaxation exercises might help to relieve the stress. If the pain persists and becomes chronic, the doctor may prescribe painkillers, or in some cases, injections. In rare cases, surgery might be needed.
There are also other solutions that help reduce back pain, drug-free. OMRON’s range of pain relievers help you to relieve your muscle and joint pain using Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) technology. OMRON HeatTens can even offer a combination of heat and TENS treatment in one single unit.
Preventing back pain: healthy lifestyle and exercises
If the back pain is benign, some simple lifestyle changes and exercises can prevent and relieve it.
It is essential that you avoid prolonged inactivity and maintain a minimum level of exercise. For example, swimming is especially recommended for the back, but activities such as yoga or pilates, which build core strength and encourage stretching, are also very good. Strengthening the back muscles is extremely important for guarding against back pain. Focus on exercises that strengthen your upper back, such as press-ups, and improve the flexibility of your spine with exercises that involve rounding and hollowing your back on all fours (the cat and cow pose).
Similarly, it is important to maintain good posture in everyday life. Whenever you need to pick something up, bend your knees and keep your back straight. At work, make sure you keep your posture correct and remember to move at regular intervals.
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