Back pain: Signs, symptoms and treatment options

Common causes, known triggers and when to seek medical care

Back pain is one of the most common medical problems, affecting 8 out of 10 people at some point during their lives, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. From a sharp, shooting pain to a dull ache, back pain can be debilitating and have a profound effect on a person’s overall quality of life. There are a variety of nonsurgical treatment options available at HonorHealth to alleviate back pain, restore function and allow those suffering to get back to enjoying the activities they love.

Common and not-so-common symptoms

Low back pain is the number two reason why Americans see their healthcare provider, which is second only to respiratory illnesses, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Symptoms can range from mild to severe and pain can occur in different parts of the body.

"It’s not unusual for pain to start in one location and then move to another area," said Harvinder Deogun, MD, a physical medicine physician at HonorHealth. "When a person has sciatica, the nerve roots in the lower back are irritated and pain is often felt in the buttocks and can even radiate down to the legs and feet."

Other symptoms of back pain include stiffness, soreness and difficulty standing or walking.

Those suffering from back pain are often unable to identify a specific event or source that caused the pain, which can sometimes be attributed to an accident, traumatic event, or muscle or ligament strain, and live with the pain for many years. Over time, however, a breakdown of the cartilage in the joints where the bones of the vertebrae connect can cause irritation and inflammation and eventually lead to osteoarthritis.

"While back pain is often temporary and goes away on its own, approximately 25-50% of patients have reoccurring back pain," Deogun explained. "However, pain that doesn’t improve with time or leads to numbness or weakness may be a sign that medical care is necessary."

While surgery is considered the last resort, certain back conditions such as a bulging or ruptured disc may require minimally invasive spinal surgical intervention.

Identifying pain

To effectively treat pain, it’s important for people to recognize when and where the pain occurs so the right treatment can be determined for the best outcome.

"During an evaluation, we begin by asking patients a lot of questions about their pain such as when it started, where it originated and how it’s described," Deogun said. "Sometimes, symptoms such as bowel or bladder pain or numbness, although quite rare, may be a sign that emergency medical treatment is necessary to avoid permanent damage."

A physical exam to measure strength and reflexes along with imaging tests help physicians determine an accurate clinical diagnosis.

Treatment options

Non-narcotic, anti-inflammatory pain medication is often the first line of treatment.

"We can also prescribe muscle relaxers and nerve pain medication for temporary relief," Deogun said. "Physical therapy, if tolerated well, can be very beneficial to teach the proper body mechanics."

Other treatment options like steroid injections, trigger point injections and radio frequency ablation techniques are available at HonorHealth and can eliminate pain sensing nerves. Physicians can also drain fluid-filled cysts on the spine to alleviate pressure.

"Lifestyle modifications such as weight loss and exercise can reduce back pain," Deogun said. "Building muscle and developing core strength, along with lifting properly using the legs and gluteal muscles, can lessen pressure on the spine and decrease the chances of a back injury."

Other noninvasive alternative treatment modalities may include acupuncture, chiropractic care and pilates to soothe back pain.

"While we can’t fight our genetics, there are things we can do to improve symptoms of back pain and restore function for a better quality of life," Deogun said.

Learn more about treatment for back pain at HonorHealth.