Back Pain: Symptoms, Diagnosis, Classification, & Treatment

Pathological changes

Most episodes of back pain eventually resolve without serious complications. The majority of back pain syndromes are caused by inflammation, especially in the first two weeks to three months, which is known as the acute phase.

Infrequently, back pain can indicate a serious underlying medical problem. For example:

  • Loss of bladder and/or bowel control accompanied by back pain or progressive weakness in the muscles of the legs is often a warning sign of a problem that is potentially life-threatening.
  • Extreme back pain occurring with other symptoms of a serious illness, such as a fever or unexplained loss of weight, may indicate a serious medical problem.

  • Back pain following trauma, such as a motor vehicle accident or a fall may be a sign of a broken bone (fracture) or another serious injury.

  • Individuals who have other medical conditions that place them at increased risk for spinal fractures, such as multiple myeloma or osteoporosis, require prompt medical attention when they develop back pain.

  • Individuals who have a history of cancer also require prompt medical attention when they develop back pain. Especially if the cancer is one that is known to metastasize, or spread to the spine such as prostate, breast and lung cancer.

Research suggests that degenerative disc disease and lumbar disc herniation, two conditions that are often noted as the cause for back pain, may not occur more often in people with pain than in the general population, and that the mechanisms by which they cause pain to occur is not known. Other research suggests that in many cases, no cause for back pain can be determined.

Some studies have suggested that psychosocial factors like stressful family relationships and job stress may more closely correlate with back pain than abnormalities in the body's structure which are revealed in medical imaging studies and X-rays.