Back pain is a very common concern among older adults. Studies show that back pain cases are more common among females who are under 40-80 years old. Back pain may be felt anywhere along the spine. The pain quality and severity vary depending on the individual’s pain tolerance and the cause of the pain. It could range from a mild, tolerable ache to a severe debilitating pain.
The most common type of back pain is acute pain, which typically lasts for 6 weeks or even less. Chronic pain, on the other hand, lasts for 3 months or more.
A majority of back pain cases are resolved after a few days or weeks even without medical intervention. Although most back pain causes are not life-threatening emergencies, they still have a negative impact on the productivity and quality of life of those who are affected.
What is Mechanical Back Pain?
Mechanical back pain is linked to the movement or “mechanics” of the spine. It refers to any type of pain being experienced when there is an abnormal amount of stress placed on the structures of the spine and its accessory tissues such as the vertebrae, vertebral disc, nerves, muscles, joints, ligaments, and tendons, resulting in inflammation. Research shows that 97% of back pain cases are attributed to mechanical back pain.
Structures of the Back
The middle portion of your back is composed of the vertebral column (spine). Your spine comprises 33 irregular bones called vertebrae; the first 24 of these are movable and allow spinal flexibility.
Your spine is divided into 5 major regions, namely cervical, thoracic, lumbar, sacral and coccygeal.
- The cervical spine comprises 7 cervical vertebrae (C1-C7) that make up the neck. The first 2 cervical vertebrae (C1-C2), named atlas and axis, are located at the base of your skull and allow head rotation.
- The 12 thoracic (T1-T12) vertebrae make up the middle back and are attached to your ribs posteriorly. Your thoracic spine is not as movable as your cervical and lumbar area.
- You have 5 lumbar vertebrae (L1-L5) forming your lower back. It carries most of the weight of your upper body so they are designed to be strong and flexible at the same time.
- The sacrum is triangular in shape and made up of 5 vertebrae fused together. It is located in your pelvis, between your two hipbones.
- Your coccyx is semi-flexible and more commonly known as the tailbone. It is the end part of the spine made up of 4 vertebrae where muscles and ligaments are attached.
Vertebral discs are located in between each vertebra. They provide cushioning, facilitate movement, and act as shock absorbers. Located in the middle of the spine is the vertebral canal where the spinal cord runs through. Spinal nerves branch out from your spinal cord and allow the transfer of impulses to and from the brain. Attached to the spine are muscles, ligaments, and tendons. They provide stability and support to the spine and protection to the spinal nerves.
Sometimes, even small anatomical or mechanical changes in the complex structures of the spine can lead to back pain.
Risk Factors for Mechanical Back Pain
- Old age – Your tendency to suffer from back pain increases are you get older. It usually starts around 30-40 years old.
- Sedentary lifestyle – Lack of physical activity and exercise can lead to weak abdominal and back muscles, which could predispose you to have back pain.
- Overweight – Being obese or overweight can put too much stress on your back, leading to back pain.
- Poor body mechanics- Improper use of body mechanics when lifting, pushing and pulling heavy objects can lead to painful muscle spasms.
- Poor posture- Poor posture can alter the natural curvature of your back and put stress on your muscles, leading to back pain.
- Psychological conditions – People with depression and anxiety disorders are at a higher risk of having back pain. According to the Spine Health Institute, people with depression have high levels of cytokines. Cytokines are proteins known to have an effect on the immune system’s response to infection and diseases, causing increased pain and inflammation.
Common Causes of Mechanical Back Pain
Back pain is only a presenting symptom of an underlying disease. According to research, the potential causes of mechanical back pain include:
- Muscle strain- Painful muscle spasms could result from constantly lifting heavy objects without using proper body mechanics.
- Spinal stenosis- Stenosis means abnormal narrowing. In spinal stenosis, the spinal canal narrows abnormally, leading to the compression of your spinal nerves.
- Herniated disc-. Also known as a slipped disc, this condition is characterized by protrusion of the inner (soft, jellylike) portion of your vertebral disc towards the outer (tough, ringlike) portion. This can cause discomfort, pain, and numbness when your spinal nerves are compressed.
- Disc degeneration- This condition is also known as degenerative disc disease. It is usually attributed to aging. As you age, your vertebral discs lose their water content, making them lose height. This would stack your vertebrae closer together and make the nerve openings narrower, leading to back pain. When this happens, your discs would be ineffective in its function as your body’s shock absorber.
- Myofascial pain syndrome- This chronic pain disorder is usually experienced when the muscles have been contracted repeatedly. This leads to muscle pain and tightness, limited muscle flexibility, and referred pain (pain felt in other parts of the body other than the actual source).
- Osteoporosis – Brittle bones are more prone to fracture. Compression fractures of the spine can lead to back pain.
How to Ease Mechanical Back Pain at Home
Apply a hot or cold pack to help relieve the inflammation in your back.
Perform deep breathing exercises to help yourself relax. Anxiety and stress can lead to back pain.
Maintain good posture and use proper body mechanics and lifting techniques in doing daily chores.
If your work involves sitting for extended hours at your desk, a seat cushion for back pain can help relieve pressure and decrease back pain.
When to Consult Your Doctor
If the pain is getting worse despite observing these home remedies, consult your doctor for further diagnosis.