Chronic back pain refers to pain or discomfort anywhere along or arising from the spine that has lasted for three months or longer. The severity of pain can vary from person to person, but it is important to pay attention to the symptoms and to have any pain that has lasted more than a few months evaluated by a spine health expert.
Generally, when it comes to spine health, there can be some misconceptions about the causes of chronic back pain and this has a lot to do with the clinical terms or definitions of the conditions involved. Among these misunderstandings is the often interchangeable use of the terms slipped disc, bulging disc, ruptured disc and/or herniated disc. These aren’t all the same condition and patients can sometimes be confused by their meanings.
A spinal disc is the soft cushion of tissue that separates each vertebra in the spine. The disc itself consists of a tough outer layer and a gel-like inner layer. Its predominant function is load bearing and serves as a shock absorber between each spinal vertebra. There are a variety of reasons a spinal disc may become damaged. From a traumatic injury like a car accident to chronic conditions like degenerative disc disease, when a spinal disc is damaged the result can range from no symptoms at all to severe, debilitating back pain.
In the case of a slipped or herniated spinal disc, this condition occurs when the outer layer of the disc has become damaged and the inner gel-like material pushes out through it. This can place pressure on the sensitive spinal nerves in the area as well as compression of the nerves exiting the spinal canal due to the loss of disc height. Especially when nerves are involved, a herniated disc can cause severe leg pain or sciatica and back pain accompanied by weakness or numbness in the extremities.
On the other hand, a bulging disc is typically considered a common part of aging and in some people causes no pain at all. This condition occurs when a spinal disc is simply bulging outside of the normal space it typically occupies within the spinal column. Unlike a herniated disc, the bulging disc does not rupture. However, when a bulging disc results in back pain, it usually means that it has degenerated significantly and is not able to function as the shock absorber it was meant to be.
Regardless of the specific cause of the disc damage, the first course of treatment is usually a conservative one which may include specific pain relief medications, physical therapy or chiropractic care. Back pain will respond well to these treatments in most people. But for some, more specific treatments like surgery may be required to resolve the underlying cause of the pain.
The spine itself is so much more than a row of bones stacked atop one another. It is an intricate network of vertebrae, discs, nerves, muscles and ligaments that all work together to keep you moving well. When one part of the spine becomes damaged, it often causes a “domino effect,” placing undo pressure and stress on other parts of the spine. So if you’ve been feeling the effects of constant spinal discomfort for more than 12 weeks, have it checked out. The health of your entire spine depends on it.