NINDS Back Pain Information Page

Back Pain
Source: The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

What is Back Pain?
Back pain is a symptom that can arise from many causes. It can range from a dull, annoying ache to absolute agony. Many cases of back pain are caused by stresses on the muscles and ligaments that support the spine. Sedentary jobs and lifestyles may create a vulnerability to this type of stress or damage. Obesity, which increases both the weight on the spine and the pressure on the discs, is another factor. Strenuous sports such as football and gymnastics can also damage the back.

Is there any treatment?
Limited rest combined with appropriate exercise and education is often the primary mode of therapy. Nonsteroidal, anti-inflammatory drugsalone or in combination with steroid injections, analgesics, muscle relaxants, or anti-depressantsmay be added to the therapy program. Acute back pain often goes away by itself in a few days or weeks. An ice bag or hot water bottle applied to the back may also help to alleviate pain. Prolonged bed rest is not beneficial because it weakens muscles. A physician should be notified immediately if there is no relief from pain after a few days in bed, if pain is severe or recurs, if radiating pain, numbness, tingling, or weakening occurs in the arms or legs, if bowel or bladder dysfunction occurs, if a child or elderly person has back pain, or if fever and/or vomiting occurs with back pain.

What is the prognosis?
Recommendations for preventing initial and recurring episodes of back pain include: regular exercise, stretching before participation in sporting activities, quitting smoking, losing weight, maintaining correct posture, using comfortable, supportive seats while driving, sleeping on the side with knees drawn up or on the back with a pillow under bent knees, lifting by bending at the knees rather than the waist, avoiding standing or working in any one position for too long, and reducing emotional stress that causes muscle tension.

What research is being done?
Within the NINDS research programs, back pain is addressed primarily through studies associated with general pain research. NINDS vigorously pursues a research program seeking new treatments for pain and nerve damage with the ultimate goal of reversing debilitating conditions such as back pain.

Selected references

Overmyer, R.
Herniated Disk: New Laser Therapy is More Efficient and Rapid Than Standard Technique Modern Medicine, 58; 32-34 (June 1990)

Posner, J.
Section Fifteen/Mechanical Lesions of the Spine and Related Structures In Cecil Textbook of Medicine, vol. 2, W.B. Saunders Co., Philadelphia, pp. 2247-2258 (1988)

Sack, B.
Acute and Chronic Low Back Pain: How to Pinpoint its Causes and Make the Diagnosis Modern Medicine, 60; 58-83 (September 1992)

Sack, B.
Acute and Chronic Low Back Pain: How to Treat, When to Refer Modern Medicine, 60; 84-92 (September 1992)

Zamula, E.
Back Talk: Advice for Suffering Spines FDA Consumer, Food and Drug Administration, Rockville, MD, pp. 28-35 (April 1989)


American Chronic Pain Association (ACPA)

P.O. Box 850
Rocklin CA 95677-0850
Tel: 916-632-0922
Fax: 916-632-3208

National Chronic Pain Outreach Association (NCPOA)

P.O. Box 274
Millboro VA 24460
Tel: 540-862-9437
Fax: 540-862-9485

Related NINDS Publications

Chronic Pain
Chronic pain information page compiled by NINDS.
Chronic Pain: Hope Through Research
Chronic pain information booklet compiled by NINDS, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

This fact sheet is in the public domain. You may copy it.

Provided by:
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
National Institutes of Health
Bethesda, MD 20892