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Overview of Back and Neck Pain

Most people will experience some sort of back or neck pain during their lives. These pains can range from a little twinge, to mild soreness and stiffness, to a piercing, more acute pain. Depending on the cause of the back or neck pain, the symptoms may last anywhere from a few days to several weeks. These pains are medically considered chronic if they last for longer than three months.

Many times, these aches and pains naturally resolve themselves as the minor injuries or muscle pulls naturally heal. Sometimes the pain can worsen over time, however, particularly if you compensate for the soreness by straining muscles you don’t ordinarily use. If a very strong muscle in your back is pulled, for example, the weaker muscles may become strained as they try to do the big muscle’s job. Once this begins to occur, it can result in a cascade of muscle pulls causing back pains to become progressively worse. This is why it is important to carefully assess any neck or back pains, monitoring their intensity and visiting your doctor if they are not improving or steadily worsening.

Causes of Back and Neck Pain

The back and neck are supported by a complicated network of bones, ligaments, muscles, tendons, and discs (in the spine). Most commonly, back and neck pains are caused by strains, in which the muscles or ligaments become torn. Heavy lifting or improper lifting techniques can strain muscles in the back, as can sudden, awkward movements, as in the case of a fall or a car accident. Muscle spasms can also cause shooting pains in the back or neck. Structural problems can also cause back and neck pain. The discs in the spine are cushiony tissues designed to pad the bones. If a disc bulges, ruptures, or becomes compressed, it can put pressure on a nerve, causing intense pain. Some people with bulging discs feel leg pains if the disc presses upon the sciatic nerve, the large nerve in the lower back that runs down through the buttock and into the leg. Arthritis can also cause back pain if there is inflammation of the spine. Osteoporosis can increase the likelihood of incurring compression fractures in the spine, which can also be extremely painful. Any irregularities in the curvature of the spine can also lead to back or neck pain as the muscles try to support your upper body. These muscles are designed to support our backs and heads in an upright position, so excessive curving of the spine can push them beyond their natural limits. Some medical conditions, such as scoliosis, lead to an abnormal curving of the spine. Sitting with bad posture can also lead to temporary back and neck pain. In much rarer cases, these pains can be caused by spinal infections or cancer (if a tumor presses on a nerve).

Seeking Help for Back and Neck Pain

As mentioned above, back and neck pains normally resolve themselves in a matter of days as the strained or injured muscles repair themselves. If there is no improvement within 72 hours, however, these pains may indicate a risk for permanent damage or there may be a serious medical problem.

Medical attention should be sought for back or neck pain if…

  • The pain follows an accident. If there has been any trauma to your head, neck, or spine, you should see your doctor immediately, as pain could also indicate a fracture.
  • The pain is very intense or constant, particularly when you lie down. This could indicate pressure on a nerve or nerve irritation.
  • The pain is accompanied by any weakness or numbness in the limbs, which could indicate neurological damage.
  • The pain causes throbbing in the abdomen or fever, which may mean you have an infection.
  • Bowel or bladder problems may occur. If associated with the onset of these pains, these symptoms may also indicate a neurological problem.

Conventional Treatments of Back and Neck Pain

The most common cause of back and neck pain is the inflammation that naturally occurs when the muscles are strained. Temporary pains can be treated at home with over the counter pain relievers and proper rest. It is important to allow the muscles to heal themselves before exerting them once again. For more acute pains, prescription pain relievers and anti-inflammatories may also be recommended.

If you seek medical attention for back or neck pains, doctors will perform diagnostic tests to check for infections, fractures, tumors, or any swelling that may be causing you discomfort. X-rays, for example, can show the alignment of the bones in your spine, help identify fractures, and also help diagnose arthritis. Computerized tomography (CT) scans or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can be used to visualize the structures in your back and neck to look for more subtle problems with the tendons, muscles, ligaments, bones, nerves, or discs. Doctors can also inject a tracer substance into your body and perform a bone scan to look for compression fractures due to osteoporosis or bone tumors that may be putting pressure on nerves. Any nerve compression can further be tested using a technology called electromyography (EMG), which measures electrical impulses produced by your nerves and tests how your muscles respond.

Depending on what the diagnostics reveal, the doctors may prescribe stronger pain medications or muscle relaxants to make recovery more comfortable. Rest with periodic gentle stretching can help loosen up stiff, painful muscles, though drugs can potentially provide faster relief for more acute pain. Narcotics (such as codeine) or injections of cortisone may be prescribed in extreme cases. Following recovery, many doctors also suggest abdominal exercises to help strengthen all the muscles that support the back and neck to reduce the risk of future strains. In some cases, patients may need to work with a physical therapist to regain strength and flexibility of their neck and back muscles.

If back pain is being caused by compressed or ruptured disc, surgery may be necessary for relief. The offending part of the disc may be removed or the entire disc can be replaced with an artificial one. Likewise, if there is a growth on the spine that is affecting a nerve, a small part of the vertebra can be removed to relieve the pain. If the pain is caused by movements between adjoining vertebrae, these bones can be surgically fused together, though this can increase the likelihood of developing arthritis later.

Numerous practical things can be done to prevent back and neck pain, as well. Regular exercise can help keep muscles in the back strong and flexible and keep your weight under control, as carrying extra body mass can put additional stress on the spine. There is also evidence that smoking can reduce oxygen levels in the tissues of the spine and hinder healing following minor injuries, so it, too, should be avoided. Much can also be done to prevent back and neck pain by using proper body mechanics, such as standing up straight and using good lower back support while sitting to keep the spine at its normal curvature. The natural tendency is to slouch while sitting for long periods of time, so taking frequent breaks and standing up can also help. Stretching exercises can also ensure that muscles stay loose and flexible. It is also recommended that people with neck and back pain not sleep on their stomachs, as it can put additional stress on the spinal column.

Patients Medical's Treatment of Back and Neck Pain

Our doctors can help develop a treatment program for your back and neck pain that will both speed up your recovery and help you prevent future injuries.

First, we can help tailor a diet and exercise program for your weight and body type. By maintaining good body composition and eliminating extra weight around the waist, there will be less stress on the spine and muscles in your back. We will also teach you proper techniques for standing and sitting, particularly if you need to do so for long periods of time as part of your job.

Depending on your case, we may also recommend chiropractic therapy to improve the alignment of your neck and spine. Acupuncture or acupressure may also be prescribed to help relieve chronic pain. Massage therapies can additionally aid in relaxation of the muscles for relief of neck and back pains.

To prevent future back pains, we can also help make recommendations for your home and work environments to help make them friendlier to natural human movements. This discipline, ergonomics, aims to better design each element of to make it safer, more comfortable, and easier to use. Learning these fundamentals can help eliminate many of the underlying causes of neck and back pain.

Next Steps:

While you may find this medical information useful, as the next step we strongly recommend that you make an appointment to see one of our physicians to ensure that your health issues are properly addressed.

To schedule an appointment with our physicians, please call our patient coordinator at 1-212-679-9667, send the form below or an email to: info@patientsmedical.com. We are currently accepting new patients and look forward to being of assistance.

We are located at: Patients Medical PC, 800 Second Avenue, Suite 900 (Between 42nd & 43rd Street), Manhattan, NYC, New York, NY 10017.

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Article Last Updated: 08/26/2015