Answers FAQ

Back Pain FAQs

Reviewed by Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

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Q:Nearly everyone has low back pain at some time during their life. True or false?

A:True.

Back pain is a common symptom that affects nearly everyone at some time in their life. Back pain affects men and women equally. Pain in the low back most commonly develops between the ages of 30 and 50, due both to the aging process and sedentary lifestyles.

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Q:What is the only neurological ailment more common than back pain?

A:Headache.

Headache is the only neurologic (nerve-related) symptom more common than back pain among people in the U.S. In most cases, back pain improves within a few days, but in some cases, it may last longer or become chronic.

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Q:What is the purpose of the spine?

A:The purpose of the spine is to support upper body weight.

The spinal column is the main structure of the back. It supports the weight of the upper body and encases the delicate system of nerves making up the spinal cord. The back itself extends from the neck to the pelvis and is made up of the bones of the spinal column, muscles, and other tissues.

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Q:What structure in the back literally translates to "horse's tail?"

A:Cauda equina.

The cauda equina is a part of the spinal cord named because of its appearance (horse's tail). When the nerve roots of the cauda equina are compressed, motor and sensory functions to the lower extremities and bladder are compromised. This is known as cauda equina syndrome, a medical emergency that can cause incontinence and paralysis.

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Q:The spine is a structure made up of more than 30 bones. True or false?

A:True.

The vertebrae is made up of more than 30 bones stacked on one another to form the spinal column. These bones surround and protect the nerve tissue of the spinal cord. The spinal cord begins at the base of the brain and extends to an area just below the rib cage in adults.

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Q:What is medical term for arthritis of the spine?

A:Ankylosing spondylitis.

Ankylosing spondylitis (AS) is a form of arthritis that typically involves the joints of the spinal column and causes back pain. AS pain may be mild or severe, and in severe cases, bones of the spine can fuse together, leading to a loss of flexibility and stiffening of the rib cage. AS can often affect the sacroiliac joint, where the spine meets the pelvic bones.

AS is named from two Greek words. The Greek word ankylos means stiff joint, while spondylo means vertebra.

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Q:What is the name for the condition that involves painful pressure on a specific nerve in the back?

A:Sciatica.

With sciatica, a herniated or ruptured disc presses against the sciatic nerve that runs from the spinal column down the lower extremity. This causes burning or shock-like pain in the low back and buttocks that may extend down one leg to the foot.

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Q:Fibromyalgia is a painful condition that can affect the spine. True or false?

A:True.

Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition that causes diffuse musculoskeletal pain as well as tiredness. Affected people have multiple "tender points" that are most commonly located in the spine, neck, hips, and shoulders. Fibromyalgia can have many associated symptoms, such as anxiety, sleep problems, and morning stiffness.

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Q:What conditions involve a spinal curvature disorder that may cause back pain?

A:There are different medical terms that can be used to describe curvature of the spine.

There are different medical terms that can be used to describe curvature of the spine. Lordosis is a backward curving of the spine; kyphosis refers to a "humpback" and describes a forward curvature, and scoliosis refers to a sideways bend in the spine. All of these deformities can cause back pain.

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Q:When should you see a doctor for back pain?

A:Always see a doctor if you have back pain that is associated with numbness, weakness, trouble urinating, or unexplained weight loss.

Rarely, back pain can signal a serious condition. You should also see a doctor if you develop back pain after an injury or fall.

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Q:Surgery is required to treat most cases of low back pain. True or false?

A:False.

Surgery is not needed for most cases of low back pain. Treatment options include drugs to relieve pain (analgesics) and reduce inflammation, restoration of proper function and strength, and prevention of further injury.

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