neck & back
Neck pain may result from abnormalities in the soft tissues—the muscles, ligaments, and nerves—as well as in bones and disks of the spine. The most common causes of neck pain are soft-tissue abnormalities due to injury (a sprain) or prolonged wear and tear. In rare instances, infection or tumors may cause neck pain. In some people, neck problems may be the source of pain in the upper back, shoulders, or arms.
Low Back Pain
There are many causes of low back pain. It sometimes occurs after a specific movement such as lifting or bending. Just getting older also plays a role in many back conditions.
As we age, our spines age with us. Aging causes degenerative changes in the spine. These changes can start in our 30s — or even younger — and can make us prone to back pain, especially if we overdo our activities.
These aging changes, however, do not keep most people from leading productive, and generally, pain-free lives. We have all seen the 70-year-old marathon runner who, without a doubt, has degenerative changes in her back!
A disk herniates when its jelly-like center (nucleus) pushes against its outer ring (annulus). If the disk is very worn or injured, the nucleus may squeeze all the way through. When the herniated disk bulges out toward the spinal canal, it puts pressure on the sensitive spinal nerves, causing pain.
Because a herniated disk in the low back often puts pressure on the nerve root leading to the leg and foot, pain often occurs in the buttock and down the leg. This is sciatica. A herniated disk often occurs with lifting, pulling, bending, or twisting movements.
Cervical Disk Degeneration (Spondylosis)
The disk acts as a shock absorber between the bones in the neck. In cervical disk degeneration (which typically occurs in people age 40 years and older), the normal gelatin-like center of the disk degenerates and the space between the vertebrae narrows. As the disk space narrows, added stress is applied to the joints of the spine causing further wear and degenerative disease. The cervical disk may also protrude and put pressure on the spinal cord or nerve roots when the rim of the disk weakens. This is known as a herniated cervical disk.
Because the neck is so flexible and because it supports the head, it is extremely vulnerable to injury. Motor vehicle or diving accidents, contact sports, and falls may result in neck injury. The regular use of safety belts in motor vehicles can help to prevent or minimize neck injury. A “rear end” automobile collision may result in hyperextension, a backward motion of the neck beyond normal limits, or hyperflexion, a forward motion of the neck beyond normal limits. The most common neck injuries involve the soft tissues: the muscles and ligaments. Severe neck injuries with a fracture or dislocation of the neck may damage the spinal cord and cause paralysis.
One of the more common causes of low back pain is muscle soreness from over-activity. Muscles and ligament fibers can be overstretched or injured. This is often brought about by that first softball or golf game of the season, or too much yard work or snow shoveling in one day. We are all familiar with this “stiffness” and soreness in the low back — and other areas of the body — that usually goes away within a few days.
Some people develop low back pain that does not go away within days. This may mean there is an injury to a disk.
Small tears to the outer part of the disk (annulus) sometimes occur with aging. Some people with disk tears have no pain at all. Others can have pain that lasts for weeks, months, or even longer. A small number of people may develop constant pain that lasts for years and is quite disabling. Why some people have pain and others do not is not well understood.
With age, intevertebral disks begin to wear away and shrink. In some cases, they may collapse completely and cause the facet joints in the vertebrae to rub against one another. Pain and stiffness result. This “wear and tear” on the facet joints is referred to as osteoarthritis. It can lead to further back problems, including spinal stenosis.
Changes from aging and general wear and tear make it hard for your joints and ligaments to keep your spine in the proper position. The vertebrae move more than they should, and one vertebra can slide forward on top of another. If too much slippage occurs, the bones may begin to press on the spinal nerves.
Spinal stenosis occurs when the space around the spinal cord narrows and puts pressure on the cord and spinal nerves.
When intervertebral disks collapse and osteoarthritis develops, your body may respond by growing new bone in your facet joints to help support the vertebrae. Over time, this bone overgrowth (called spurs) can lead to a narrowing of the spinal canal. Osteoarthritis can also cause the ligaments that connect vertebrae to thicken, which can narrow the spinal canal.