Back pain refers to pain along or near the spine. Most adults have had back pain at some time. Back pain is usually not serious and often goes away in 1 to 8 weeks, usually less than 1 month.
Causes include strained muscles, pinched nerves, and sometimes a disc moving out of place. Discs are cushions between bones of the spine (vertebrae).
Older people may have back pain because of arthritis in joints in the spine. Older women can have weak bones, from osteoporosis, that can develop cracks.
Sometimes pain or disease in another part of the body, such as the hip, causes back pain.
Very few people have serious illnesses (cancer, infection).
The most common symptoms are pain and stiffness of the lower back. Certain areas may feel tender. Pain often gets better at night or while resting. Symptoms of pinched nerves are pain going down into the back of the leg (called sciatica), numbness and tingling of the leg, weakness when moving, and pain that worsens while walking or exercising.
Most people don’t need any tests beyond a health care provider’s examination. The health care provider may do x-rays if pain might be due to spinal deformity or medical illness, or if it is long-term.
Most back pain just needs pain medicine (e.g., acetaminophen or ibuprofen). Physical therapy may help if pain resulted from lifting or pushing done the wrong way. Most people are well within 8 weeks, no matter what treatment they receive. People with long-term pain may need to go to a pain clinic. Surgery and other treatments are needed only rarely.
Take steps for back health: strengthen the back by exercising, quit smoking, keep to a normal weight, learn how to properly move and lift things, and reduce stress.
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