What exactly does back pain mean? Most people experience back pain for a short time at some point in their lives, possibly after overdoing exercise or other activities. But persistent pain is not as common. Persistent back pain, lasting more than a month, is termed chronic back pain.

According to UPMC Hamot neurosurgeon Brian Dalton, MD, “Back pain is a painful condition involving any portion of the spine, from the base of the skull down to your tailbone.”

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Risk Factors for Chronic Back Pain

Many people experience occasional back pain because of overuse or everyday wear and tear. For some people, however, back pain is a frequent occurrence, lasting longer than a few days. Chronic back pain can result from overuse. Injuries, however, are the most common cause of back pain and often are the result of an accident, sports mishap, or work-related activity.

Other factors that may make you more susceptible to chronic back pain include:

  • Aging
  • Family history
  • Degenerative joint or disc disease
  • Lifting or pulling heavy objects
  • Sedentary work

“Folks with occupations that require repetitive lifting or bending will have a higher likelihood of developing chronic pain issues with their backs,” says Dr. Dalton.

Pain can occur in any part of the back: bones, discs, muscles, ligaments, or the joints of the spine.

At-Home Treatments for Back Pain

Here are a few simple methods that can help to reduce most low-grade back pain:

  • Maintain good posture by standing and sitting up straight with your shoulders back and your neck and spine aligned
  • Stretch your back and legs

Dr. Dalton also recommends using anti-inflammatory medicines such as ibuprofen and applying heat or ice packs to treat occasional back pain.

“People always want to know which is better — heat or ice? The answer is simple: Use whatever works for you,” says Dr. Dalton.

Medical Treatment for Persistent Back Pain: Ways to Cope

Back pain that persists or seems to radiate to the arms or legs may require more substantial treatment.

In the absence of significant limb weakness or new bowel or bladder issues that develop with the onset of pain, doctors will often refer people for physical therapy, which may include stretches and exercises to strengthen the back. Through consultation with your doctors and physical therapists, you can learn practical information about back care, posture, body mechanics, and back exercises.

If back pain persists after these interventions, your doctor may order additional tests to determine the cause before recommending treatment options such as medicines or injections. “Only about 12 percent of people who slip a disc will require surgery because of persistent pain or neurologic complications from the disc herniation,” says Dr. Dalton.

Dr. Dalton also notes that aging can bring about a loss of bone density. He recommends checking with your doctor about vitamin D supplements and exercises to keep your bones healthy and your back strong.

Smoking and obesity are two more factors that can affect back health. “Smoking increases disc degeneration and overall pain scores,” explains Dr. Dalton. Obesity puts a strain on all joints and bones, including those in the back. “Smoking and obesity not only make it more difficult to diagnose problems, but people who smoke and individuals who are obese are much harder to treat, and they will have a much higher complication rate from those treatments,” he says.

For more information about treating persistent, chronic back pain or to make an appointment with one of our doctors, call the UPMC Department of Neurosurgery at 412-647-3685.

If you have questions about full, in-network access to UPMC doctors and hospitals, please call our help line at 1-855-646-8762.