Pain in the back or neck area can be continuous or intermittent and range from mild to severe. Neck pain is defined as pain that occurs in the cervical vertebrae in your neck. Lower back pain is most common and often affects the lumbar vertebrae.
Upper and middle back pain includes the area from the base of the neck to the bottom of the rib cage. This is the largest part of the back and often affects the thoracic vertebrae. (Pain in this area is less common than the neck or lower back.)
All of the above can restrict mobility and interfere with normal functioning and quality of life.
Warning Signs & Symptoms
Numbness and tingling are signs that back pain could be developing. Being treated sooner rather than later is always a good choice and allows physicians to intervene while the condition is less severe.
Possible Risk Factors
There are many reasons why a person may be experiencing back or neck pain. It’s also important to recognize that sometimes back or neck pain has one specific source; other times, it is due to a combination of factors.
Examples of common reasons for back or neck pain include:
- Abnormal growth (such as tumor or bone spur)
- Birth defect
- Herniated disc and pinched nerve
- Ligament or muscle tears
- Muscle strain, tension or spasm
- Myofascial pain (muscle connective tissue)
- Osteoporosis, osteoarthritis and the effects of aging
- Poor posture or improper use such as repetitive or heavy lifting
- Trauma, bone fracture injury (such as a sports injury or car accident)
- Weak muscle tone
Tests to Diagnose Back and Neck Pain
Back and neck pain are diagnosed through a medical examination, including health history. Physicians also begin the diagnostic procedure by palpating the neck and back, testing range of motion and nerve function.
X-rays and MRIs are often recommended to more closely examine the area and determine the source of the pain. Each type of imaging procedure provides different information—for instance, while X-rays primarily show the bones, an MRI can reveal soft tissue damage as well as skeletal abnormalities.
In some cases, physicians may order a blood or urine tests to see if the pain is being caused by an infection or another problem unrelated to the neck or back.
Treatment depends on what is determined to be the cause of pain during a patient’s evaluation. Neck and back pain can be reduced by noninvasive or minimally invasive options, such as lifestyle modifications or massage therapy including:
- Avoiding activities that cause neck or back pain
- Taking an over-the-counter pain medicine or prescription medication
- If pain is primarily related to stiffness, try using heat on the painful area. If pain is primarily related to swelling, try icing the area.
If these options do not help, there are a variety of pain treatments—from steroid injections to other therapies that block or damage the nerves that send pain signals to the brain. The final course of action may be to undergo neck or back surgery. On occasion, surgery may be the primary option due to the severity of the problem.
There are several ways to help prevent back and neck injury that leads to pain:
- Perform exercises regularly to strengthen the back and core muscle. Be sure to warm up properly before beginning an exercise.
- Be sure to keep core muscles tight and use your leg muscles instead of the back to lift heavy objects
- Use telephones, computers and other equipment properly. For example, do not “cradle” a telephone between the shoulder and ear when using it
- Make sure to have proper posture while sitting and standing
- Avoid smoking
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Identify emotional stressors and notice if or where they cause muscle tension. Take steps to reduce or eliminate this stress and take time throughout the day to focus on these areas to relax them
- Become a defensive driver, always wear your seatbelt, and refrain from distracting activities (changing music or texting etc.) while driving.