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When Back Pain Becomes Chronic, There Can Be Many Causes

When a person experiences pain or discomfort originating from the spine for three months or more, the pain is considered to be chronic. How severe the pain varies in different people, from a nagging discomfort to extreme pain that prevents an individual from living an otherwise healthy, active life. Getting to the bottom of what’s causing that pain is crucial because unchecked back pain can result in lasting spinal damage for some people.

Some of the causes frequently related to the development of chronic back pain are slipped discs, bulging discs, ruptured discs or herniated discs. The meanings of these spinal conditions can be confusing for some people because they are often used interchangeably in a variety of published articles online. But they aren’t all the same condition.

To better understand the problems that can present within the spinal discs, some understanding of spinal anatomy is required. A spinal disc refers to the soft cushion-like tissue which separates each vertebra in the spine. The spinal disc itself is made up of a tough outer layer and a gel-like inner layer. There are several circumstances under which a spinal disc can become damaged. From injuries that involve trauma to the spine, car accidents to chronic conditions like osteoporosis, when a disc in the spine becomes damaged, the result can be a range from no symptoms at all to severe back pain that is debilitating.

When the cause of chronic back pain is a slipped or herniated spinal disc, this condition presents itself due to the outer layer of a disc sustaining damage and the inner gel-like material pushing out through the damaged part. When that happens, pressure can be placed on the sensitive spinal nerves in the area surrounding the damaged disc and can also result in compression of the spinal vertebra. When sensitive nerves become involved, a herniated disc can cause back pain that may also feature sensations in the extremities of the arms or legs that can include numbness, weakness and/or tingling, depending on which disc or discs the herniation is affecting.

Contrastingly, a bulging disc is frequently considered a regular part of aging for some individuals and may not result in any pain at all in some. This condition happens when a spinal disc bulges outside of the normal space it typically fits in within the spinal column. Unlike a herniated disc, a bulging disc does not rupture. But, when a bulging disc results in back pain, it usually means that it has caused a narrowing of the spinal canal and may be placing pressure on the delicate nerves surrounding it.

Depending on the specific cause of the spinal disc damage, the first course of treatment is usually with conservative options including certain pain relief medications, physical therapy or chiropractic care in some cases. For most people, these treatments and time will help to resolve the back pain. But for some, interventions like surgery may be required to address the underlying cause of the pain.

Though we often think of the spine as a long row of bones stacked on top of each other, this structure is actually so much more complicated than that. In addition to those vertebral bones, there is an intricate network of discs, nerves, muscles, and ligaments that are all designed to work together to keep the body functioning correctly. Because all of these elements are working together, when one part of the spine is damaged or compromised, it can cause a “cascade effect,” that stresses other parts of the spine. If you have been feeling back pain or consistent spinal discomfort for more than 12 weeks, it is important to consult with a spine specialist or trusted health care provider to find out what’s causing it.

Sources:

http://www.allaboutbackandneckpain.com/understandingconditions/bulgingdisc.asp

http://www.healthline.com/health/herniated-disk#Diagnosis5

Neel Anand, M.D., Contributor

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