Build a Better Back: Pain Remedies That Work

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The Anatomy of Your Back

Problem: You strained a muscle or tendon, or sprained a ligament. Bands of ligaments and tendons hold the vertebrae in place and attach muscles to the spinal column. A strain or sprain is the most common cause of back pain. Torn muscles and tendons are known as strains; the same kind of injury to a ligament is a sprain.

Why it hurts: Think of your abs and back muscles as support wires for your spine. If you have bad posture and you rely on the wrong muscles to hold up your spine, they can become fatigued. Playing sports incorrectly or when you're not warmed up can also cause this. Something as minor as bending over to pick up a toothpaste cap can also stress weakened tissues, pulling the back out of alignment and causing a painful back spasm. When you tense up or hunch over to protect the injury, you can make the spasm worse. The trigger can also be psychological rather than physical. If you are stressed, that tension can make muscles tighten, pinching nerves and setting off a spasm.

Problem: A disk is getting worn, compressing a nerve. Disks (rounds of fibrous tissue between vertebrae) function as shock absorbers for your back. More than 50 nerves branch off from the spinal cord, and when they are squeezed or irritated, pain results.

Why it hurts: When disks wear as a result of aging, osteoarthritis, degenerative disk disease, or injury, the jelly-like center herniates (or bulges), which can press on nerves (a condition colloquially known as a "slipped disk"). One possible result is sciatica (pain involving the long sciatic nerve, which runs down from the lower back through the buttocks and legs and into the feet).

Problem: One or more vertebrae are cracked or out of alignment. The spinal column has 24 vertebrae, stacked one on top of another. The five lumbar (lower-back) vertebrae carry the weight of the entire torso, making that part of the spine the most frequently injured.

Why it hurts: The usual suspects: excess weight, pregnancy or congenital conditions such as scoliosis (sideways curvature) or lordosis (exaggerated arch to lower back) stress weak muscles and joints, especially the sacroiliac joint (where the lower spine connects to the pelvis). Other culprits: bone spurs (bony growths caused by arthritis) that press on the nerves or cause spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal canal, which also pressures nerves) or spondylolisthesis (weak and slipped joints). And hard or sudden falls can fracture vertebrae made weak and porous by osteoporosis.

Problem: Your back hurts because something's wrong elsewhere in your body. Doctors call this "referred pain" because it's not caused by the back itself.

Why it hurts: Endometriosis, kidney stones, or pregnancy weight can trigger back pain that may become chronic. So can fibromyalgia, a disorder of widespread muscle/ligament/joint pain, fatigue, and tenderness at trigger points through the body, most often the lower back.

Continued on page 3:  20 Bad Habits That Can Wreck Your Back


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