Back Pain: Symptoms, Diagnosis, Classification, & Treatment


Back pain is sometimes categorized by the area of the body in which it is located: neck pain, mid-back pain, low-back pain or coccyx (tailbone) pain.  It can also be classified by the length of time it lasts, or its duration:

  • Acute back pain: This is pain that is new and can last up to 12 weeks. It can be caused by inflammation, irritation, tissue damage or injury, a procedure or surgery or by illness or disease. This pain usually ends when the condition causing it is treated or is resolved.

  • Chronic back pain: This lasts more than 12 weeks. It persists or occurs with a chronic disease such as arthritis or degenerative disc disease. It can be continuous, or it may come and go. Chronic back pain affects some people to the point that they are unable to work, get adequate rest or enjoy their life.  

Back pain can also be classified according to its cause.

Non-specific back pain

  • Non-specific back pain: This indicates that the cause of the back pain is not precisely known, but it is thought to be caused from problems in the soft tissues. The soft tissues include the muscles, ligaments and the fascia (a sheet of connective tissue that covers, separates or holds together organs, soft tissues or muscles).
  • Back pain with radiculopathy or spinal stenosis
  • Back pain with another specific cause

Nearly all (98%) of patients with back pain are diagnosed with acute non-specific back pain that has no serious underlying cause. Back pain that is caused by another underlying disease accounts for the remaining 2% of patients suffering from back pain. The underlying conditions may include cancer that has metastasized, an epidural abscess or spinal osteomyelitis. These conditions account for approximately 1% of the remaining 2%. The other underlying condition that is frequently responsible for back pain due to another specific cause is disc herniation. Herniated discs most often occur in the lowest two vertebrae of the lumbar spine.