A constant, dull ache. A sharp or stabbing pain. A tingling or burning sensation. If you have chronic back pain, it can feel like you’re in constant discomfort or you’re waiting for the hurt to return. And you’re probably wondering exactly how you got here.
Do you just have a “bad” back? Did you move funny and cause an old high school sports injury to flare up? Did that slip and fall on the ice last winter do some lasting damage?
The truth is that most chronic pain is caused by underlying conditions. Sure, an awkward movement or a fall can trigger pain, but those events aren’t usually the root cause.
So, what are some of those underlying causes of chronic back pain? Let’s start by defining what chronic back pain is. Then we’ll talk about chronic back pain causes and how you may be able to find lasting relief.
What are chronic back pain symptoms?
Chronic back pain symptoms typically come on gradually and are long-lasting, sticking around for more than six weeks. As we mentioned, chronic pain usually isn’t caused by a specific event or injury – nor does it just go away or heal itself without medical treatment.
This is different from acute back pain, which usually comes on suddenly and goes away within two to six weeks. And because chronic pain is long-lasting, it often causes you to avoid physical activity or compensate in other ways, which can actually make your pain worse in the long-run.
How common is chronic back pain?
Pretty common. Research shows that eight out of 10 Americans will experience some sort of back pain during their lifetime. Of those who have back pain, one tenth (about 8% of the total population) deals with the chronic kind.
What causes chronic back pain?
People often think that a single event or injury is to blame for their chronic back problems. But the truth is that a single cause usually can’t be identified, rather there are several underlying conditions that can contribute to chronic pain.
1. Muscle deconditioning
Muscle deconditioning – also called muscle atrophy – is one of the most common causes of chronic back pain. Muscle deconditioning happens when your back muscles lack the strength and stability to support you properly, leading to wear and tear over time.
Some deconditioning naturally occurs as we age – which we’ll get to a little later – but lack of physical activity is the biggest contributor.
If your back is hurting or you recently injured yourself, you’ve probably started taking it easy or avoiding certain activities. In the short-term, modifying your activities or avoiding things like heavy lifting are often recommended to help your back heal.
But too much inactivity can cause muscles to shrink and weaken. When this happens, the muscles in your back may no longer be able to support ligaments and vertebrae as they normally would – which can lead to pain or make you more prone to injury.
2. Improper posture or body mechanics
Bad habits can stress your spine and strain the soft tissue surrounding it. And over time, this repeated stress can break down the structural components of the spine.
While posture or body mechanics are part of every movement you make (or don’t make), your work environment can have a big impact.
If your job requires regular lifting or repetitive movement, proper mechanics are your best defense against chronic back pain.
For office workers, when you sit at your desk for long stretches without stretching, it can cause your hip flexors to tighten. Over time, this can cause hips and hamstrings to weaken, leading to lower back pain.
If you notice yourself hunching over your keyboard several times per day, you may be developing kyphosis. This excessive curving of the spine is often associated with chronic back pain.
3. Genetics and aging
As we get older, our bodies change – and aches and pains can become more common. We lose muscle strength and disc space within our spine.
Of course, this natural aging process can be sped up by the other chronic pain-causing conditions we talk about in this post.
4. Traumatic events
Events such as car accidents, falls on ice, trip-and-fall accidents, and other high-impact events can speed up the aging process on the spine and trigger chronic pain to flare. These events can lead to overcompensating on movements because of the injury.
5. Overuse and repetition of everyday activities
Every day, the little things we do can have a big impact on the amount of stress we put on our bodies. Examples include:
- Driving or sitting for long periods of time
- Repetitive motion activities such as walking, bending over, exercising or typing
- Lifting both small and heavy objects (including kids)
- Sleeping in an odd position or on an old mattress
What to do for chronic backpain? Can you get pain relief without surgery?
Surgery can be an effective option for long-term pain relief. But there’s not a lot of data to support that surgery is the best solution for curing back pain.
Generally, surgery is only recommended after non-surgical treatment options have stopped working.
The best treatment for chronic back pain is movement, which may sound weird. When your back hurts, you usually think it’s time to take it easy. So, you avoid certain activities or movements because you think it will help you heal faster.
But the less you move the more you’ll experience that muscle deconditioning – and your pain will probably get worse.
So, how do you heal your chronic back pain? You need ongoing active physical therapy.
What is active physical therapy?
Active physical therapy involves movement-based activities like: stretching, range of motion exercises, and targeted spine strengthening and conditioning exercises.
The movements and exercises are designed to address those underlying causes of chronic back pain so you can strengthen your back, condition your muscles and improve your mobility.
Meet Physicians Neck & Back Center: A leader in active physical therapy programs
Your active physical therapy program needs to be intensive and specifically designed to strengthen and condition your back and core. And early on, you need specialized equipment that can help you target those specific muscles. That’s where Physicians Neck & Back Center (PNBC) can help.
We opened PNBC nearly 30 years ago, and we’ve worked with more than 200,000 patients in that time.
Our active physical therapy program for back pain focuses on spine strengthening. Through this program, you’ll start by doing an intake with a doctor or a physical therapist who specializes in spine care. They’ll work with you to determine your best treatment plan. Then you’ll start working one-on-one with a physical therapist who specializes in helping people heal chronic pain.
Want to learn more about PNBC? Watch this short video.
Your therapy will happen at one of our facilities that features state-of-the-art medical exercise equipment. Programs range usually from six to 12 weeks, but it all depends on your progress and your goals. You’ll learn about what chronic pain is and how the brain processes it. You’ll also focus on body mechanics such as proper lifting, standing and sleeping – all the things that can contribute to back pain but you may not think about.
No matter what the cause of your pain is, our goal is to help you get long-term relief without needing surgery. If you’ve already had surgery – such as a fusion or decompression – and are still experiencing activity limitations, we also have programs built around post-operative patients.
Since our programs are intensive and last for several weeks, it’s a good time to use your Flexible Savings Account (FSA) dollars or your insurance (especially if you’ve already met your deductible for the year).
Don’t wait to get relief: Learn more about your chronic back pain treatment options
If you have chronic back pain, chances are you’re experiencing more than aching discomfort.
You’re not able to pick up your kids or grandkids. You’re missing out on your favorite activities. You’re not living your best life. And an active physical therapy program can help you get you back to it.
To learn more about the PNBC program, schedule an in-person or video visit consultation.
Ready to heal your chronic back pain? Get started by scheduling a consultation appointment.