Understanding Your Back Pain

Think all back pain is the same? It isn’t: Back pain can have different causes, some of which can lead to serious spinal damage. Here’s what you need to know.

Understanding Your Back PainPhoto: iStock

Injured or Overused Your Back Muscles? That’s Mechanical Back Pain

Hockey Night in Canada might inspire you to head to the rink and lace up your skates, but keep in mind that if you get hurt, you could be faced with the ache and discomfort of back pain.

Mechanical back pain is typically caused by bad habits, like hunching over a laptop all day, or straining to lift heavy objects. It can also be caused by injuries, like those you get from playing sports, or by bulging or ruptured disks in the spine. Symptoms of mechanical back pain include muscle tension and stiffness, weakness in the legs or feet, and tingling or burning that travels down into the glutes and legs. This kind of back pain can occur at any age and usually develops quite quickly.

Inflammatory Back Pain is Different From Mechanical Back Pain

There are several potential causes of inflammatory back pain. One common cause is Ankylosing Spondylitis (AS), an autoimmune condition that’s estimated to affect up to 300,000 Canadians-many under the age of 40. With AS, your own immune system starts to target your body’s healthy tissues, which leads to inflammation. This inflammation can happen in various parts of the body, including the spine, as well as other joints and tissues, such as inflammation affecting the eye (e.g., uveitis) or the bowel (e.g., Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis), and the skin (e.g., psoriasis)

Symptoms of inflammatory back pain may be similar to mechanical pain, but there are other, distinct signs:

• Loss of movement or increased stiffness in the hips or lower back
• Pain that alternates from one side of the lower back to the other
• Pain or tenderness in the knees, underneath the heels, ribs or on either side of your pelvis
• Morning stiffness that lasts more than 30 minutes, that improves with movement

Another hallmark of inflammatory back pain is that it doesn’t get better after you rest, but does improve with movement and exercise. This type of back pain usually starts under the age of 40; it develops gradually and lasts longer than three months.

Don’t Brush Off Either Type of Back Pain

It’s possible to be affected by mechanical and inflammatory back pain at the same time, so don’t disregard the pain you’re feeling. “Many people assume that the cause of their back pain is wear and tear,” says Dr. Paul MacMullan, assistant professor of rheumatology at the University of Calgary. “But back pain could signal a serious, underlying medical condition that requires treatment.”

Dr. MacMullan treats many athletes, and he plays hockey himself, so he’s all too aware of players complaining of back pain. Be aware: inflammatory back pain tends to get worse over time and may lead to permanent damage, so let your doctor know if you’re experiencing symptoms if the pain has persisted for more than three months, or if you have a history of uveitis, psoriasis, or inflammatory bowel disease. “Back pain isn’t ‘all in your head’,” stresses Dr. MacMullan. “Early diagnosis is key to effectively managing back pain.”

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