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Writing about back problems is no easy trick!
A fitness participant asked me if I would write an article about back problems. I admitted that I have usually avoided the subject because it is so huge and there are so many variables. But I decided to tackle it — a little bit!
“The back” is a large area of the human body — anywhere from the neck to the tailbone — the bones and joints of the spine, the discs that separate the vertebrae, and all the muscles and ligaments that hold the spine together.
It is divided into three sections: cervical, thoracic, and lumbar.
Reasons we might have a Pain in our Back
Let’s look at five common reasons you might have back problems, two less serious than the other three:
“Normal Activity” Injuries: Sometimes we do the worse damage to ourselves when doing something seemingly simple: picking up a book, lifting a bag or box, or doing yard work. These are called sprains and strains and, simple as they seem, they can cause us a lot of misery. The back is particularly vulnerable.
Repetitive Injuries: We do some movements or activities frequently, and think nothing of it....until we have pain. We don’t remember doing a thing differently than we normally do (and that’s because we didn’t). Some of the more common conditions in this category are tennis elbow or carpal tunnel syndrome. Repetitive injury in the back can occur by simply bending over all day long to work in the garden. These injuries seemingly occur overnight — muscle pain, spasms, and stiffness — but we are not always sure at first what we did to cause it until we try the same activity again.
Severe Accidents: Automobile accidents, falls (especially from heights), or direct blows to the back or top of the head, can cause serious back injuries. Damage may be permanent, surgery may be required, and recovery can be slow and painful.
Degenerative Diseases: Osteoarthritis and osteoporosis can weaken the spine. Tumours or infections can also develop on the spine. These are generally more common in older adults, and can cause significant problems.
Spinal Deformaties: Two of the more common spinal deformities are scoliosis and kyphosis. These conditions usually occur at birth.
Treatment Varies: Depending on the Type and Severity of the Problem
Let’s look at the two easiest back injuries to treat (though admittedly nothing is ever “easy” when it comes to back issues):
Sprains and Strains: “Any torn muscle is called a muscle strain...Sprains always refer to torn ligaments....The direct cause of every muscle strain is traumatic ripping of the muscle tissue usually at the point where the muscle meets its tendon. Muscle will tear under the force of your own muscular contraction, or excessive stretch.” 2 Sprains and strains require rest and rest and more rest. Sometimes icing can help. Healing may occur quickly (within 48 hours), or take several weeks. It all depends on how bad it is, but this is one time when patience is almost always a virtue. 3
Repetitive Injuries: These injuries will occur in almost any joint, but they can also occur in the back and spine. They are not easy to “fix”, but some can be treated with rest, massage, and icing. To truly heal and repair, the movement that caused the injury needs to stop. This is, of course, very frustrating to a golfer or a tennis player or someone who repeatedly texts on their cell phone — but rest is imperative. There are some repetitive injuries that are so serious they require surgery.
Spinal cord injuries — which can be devastating and permanent — cause damage to the nerve roots within the spinal cord which send signals to and from the brain. It is often difficult to make an accurate prognosis because of the complexity of these injuries, and the first step is to determine where the injury has occurred within the spine. Recovery — if there is one — is usually slow and long-term.
Conditions we Develop as we Age
Two common conditions are:
Osteoarthritis: A degenerative joint disease, and the most common form of arthritis, osteoarthritis can cause joint pain, tenderness, sticking, and sometimes locking of joints. Most people experience at least mild osteoarthritis as they age. Treatment varies, but the use of mild pain medications or ibuprofin for inflammation is common. In some cases, joint replacement is necessary.
Osteoporosis: Literally meaning “porous bone”, Osteoporosis is a disease of the bone, and can lead to bone fractures. Very common in women, especially after menopause, it may also develop in men and/or occur in some diseases, hormonal disorders, or as a side effect of some drugs. Lifestyle behaviours — including diet and exercise — may prevent osteoporosis or at least keep it controlled. See also Exercise and Osteoporosis.
Conditions we are Born With
The two most common conditions are:
Scoliosis: The word comes from a Greek word, skoliosis, which means “crooked.” A person with scoliosis has a curved spine. It usually happens at birth, but can also occur in infancy, early childhood, adolescence, and even young adults. Symptoms may include (in addition to the curved spine) the prominence of a rib or shoulder blade. Treatment — depending upon severity — ranges from simple exercises and physiotherapy to bracing or even surgery.
Kyphosis: Also from a Greek word (meaning hump), kyphosis is a curvature of the upper back. Its causes are many: degenerative diseases such as arthritis or osteoporosis; developmental problems in the womb; compression fractures; or trauma. As with scoliosis, treatments vary, according to the severity: everything from physical therapy and braces to surgery.
Back Issues are Complex
If you know or suspect that you have any of these conditions (and there are many others not mentioned), you will want to consult your doctor for more information about maintenance and/or treatment.
- Erector Spinae
- Latissimus Dorsi: The Lats
- Exercise and Arthritis
- Exercise and Osteoporosis
- Over-Training: How do you know when you're doing too much?
- Can there be fitness after an injury?
- Pain during Exercise: Should it hurt when I exercise?
I am a BCRPA-certified fitness instructor in Vancouver, BC. I teach four classes at the West End Community Centre in Vancouver, BC, mostly designed for the older adult. The Inevitable Disclaimer: Everything published here expresses only my opinion, based on my training and research. What you do with the information is entirely your own responsibility. I am not liable for any injury you suffer that seems to be related to anything you read here. Always consult your doctor before beginning an exercise program. For other articles, return to the table of contents.