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Most people will have a minor back problem at one time or another. Our body movements usually do not cause problems, but it's not surprising that symptoms develop from everyday wear and tear, overuse, or injury. Back problems and injuries often occur during sports or recreational activities, work-related tasks, or home projects.
Back pain can cause problems anywhere from the neck to the tailbone (coccyx). The back includes:
Back injuries are the most common cause of back pain. Injuries frequently occur when you use your back muscles in activities that you do not do very often, such as lifting a heavy object or doing yard work. Minor injuries also may occur from tripping, falling a short distance, or excessive twisting of the spine. Severe back injuries may result from car accidents, falls from significant heights, direct blows to the back or the top of the head, a high-energy fall onto the buttocks, or a penetrating injury such as a stab wound.
Although back pain is often caused by an injury to one or more of the structures of the back, it may have another cause. Some people are more likely to develop back pain than others. Things that increase your risk for back pain and injury include getting older, having a family history of back pain, sitting for long periods, lifting or pulling heavy objects, and having a degenerative disease such as osteoporosis.
Slumping or slouching alone may not cause low back pain. But after the back has been strained or injured, bad posture can make pain worse. "Good posture" generally means your ears, shoulders, and hips are in a straight line. If this posture causes pain, you may have another condition such as a problem with a disc or bones in your back.
Low back pain may occur in children and teenagers, but children and teens are less likely to see a doctor for low back pain. Although most back problems occur in adults ages 20 to 50, back problems in children younger than 20 and adults older than 50 are more likely to have a serious cause.
Pain from an injury may be sudden and severe. Bruising and swelling may develop soon after the injury. Pain from an acute injury usually does not last longer than 6 weeks. Acute injuries include:
You may not remember a specific injury, especially if your symptoms began gradually or during everyday activities. These injuries occur most often from improper movement or posture while lifting, standing, walking, or sitting, or even while sleeping. Symptoms can include pain, muscle spasms, and stiffness. The pain often goes away within 4 weeks without any treatment.
Back pain or problems may not be related to an injury.
Most back pain will get better and go away by itself in 1 to 4 weeks. Home treatment will often help relieve back pain that is caused by minor injuries. It is usually a good idea to continue your regular activities while your back is healing. Avoid heavy lifting and activities that seem to make your back problems worse.
Other treatments for a back problem or injury may include first aid measures, physical therapy, manipulative therapy (such as chiropractic), medicine, and, in some cases, surgery. Treatment depends on:
Check your symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.
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Pain in children 3 years and older
Pain in children under 3 years
It can be hard to tell how much pain a baby or toddler is in.
Pain in adults and older children
Bladder or bowel trouble can include:
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Many things can affect how your body responds to a symptom and what kind of care you may need. These include:
Based on your answers, you need emergency care.
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Based on your answers, you need emergency care.
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Symptoms of a heart attack may include:
The more of these symptoms you have, the more likely it is that you're having a heart attack. Chest pain or pressure is the most common symptom, but some people, especially women, may not notice it as much as other symptoms. You may not have chest pain at all but instead have shortness of breath, nausea, numbness, tingling, or a strange feeling in your chest or other areas.
Shock is a life-threatening condition that may quickly occur after a sudden illness or injury.
Symptoms of shock (most of which will be present) include:
Urinary tract infections may occur in the bladder or kidneys. Symptoms may include:
With severe bleeding, any of these may be true:
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With mild bleeding, any of these may be true:
Major trauma is any event that can cause very serious injury, such as:
Shock is a life-threatening condition that may occur quickly after a sudden illness or injury.
Symptoms of shock in a child may include:
Home treatment may help relieve pain, swelling, and stiffness related to a back problem.
Exercises to reduce pain
Do not smoke. Smoking slows healing because it decreases blood supply and delays tissue repair. For more information, see the topic Quitting Smoking.
Talk to your child's doctor before switching back and forth between doses of acetaminophen and ibuprofen. When you switch between two medicines, there is a chance your child will get too much medicine.
Back pain often gets better when you gradually increase your physical activity. Try to get back to your normal routines and activities as soon as possible. Resting and not doing anything may actually increase back pain or make it last longer.
Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home treatment:
There is no clear evidence that you can prevent back pain. But there are some things you can do that may help prevent it. And they can prepare you for faster recovery if you do have back pain.
Some exercises actually increase the chances of causing of low back pain. Avoid:
Most back problems that occur in the workplace are caused by physical stress, such as being in an awkward position for a long time, making the same motions over and over, and simply using your back too much. These injuries can cause stress and strain on muscles, nerves, tendons, joints, blood vessels, or spinal discs.
Arrange your work to help prevent work-related injuries. It is important to position yourself so that you can sit comfortably and minimize stress on any one area of your body. Change your positions and tasks as often as possible, and match tools to your size and preferences. If you are doing a job or task that requires you to sit for long periods, get up and stretch and move around at least once an hour.
To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.
You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:
Current as of: June 4, 2014
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine & David Messenger, MD
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