Back and Neck Pain Symptoms and Causes

What causes back and neck pain?

The exact cause of spine pain can be challenging to pinpoint. Often, there are multiple causes that could include the following:

  • Abnormal growth, such as a tumor or bone spur
  • Abdominal problems, such as an aortic aneurysm 
  • Breakdown of vertebrae caused by stresses on the muscles and ligaments that support the spine or the effects of aging
  • Congenital (present from birth) problems
  • Infection
  • Joint problems, such as arthritis
  • Ligament or muscle tears
  • Muscle tension or spasm
  • Obesity, with added weight putting pressure on the disks
  • Osteoporosis and compression fractures
  • Overuse, strenuous activity or improper use, such as repetitive motion or heavy lifting
  • Poor muscle tone
  • Smoking
  • Slipped (protruding or herniated) disk and pinched nerve
  • Sprain or strain
  • Trauma, injury or fractures

What causes back and neck pain?

Symptoms linked to back pain may include:

  • Consistent ache in the middle or lower part of your back, especially after standing or sitting for a long period.
  • Dull, burning or sharp pain in your back.  The pain can be limited to a single spot or cover a large area.
  • Leg numbness or tingling, above or below your knee.
  • Sharp, shooting pain that spreads from your low back to your buttocks, down the back of your thigh and into your calf and toes.
  • Stiffness or aching that occurs anywhere along your spine from your neck to your tailbone.

Symptoms linked to back pain may include:

  • Arm numbness or tingling
  • Headaches
  • Sharp shooting pain or a dull ache in your neck
  • Shoulder pain

What are the differences between acute and chronic pain?

  • Acute pain may occur suddenly from an injury and is caused by something specific (e.g. broken bones, childbirth, burns). When there is no longer an underlying cause for the pain, it should not last longer than six weeks.
  • Chronic pain may come on quickly or slowly and lingers longer than three months. This type of pain can continue even after the injury or illness that caused it has healed or gone away as pain signals remain active.

How is back and neck pain diagnosed?

Your Washington University spine specialist will ask about your health history and do a physical exam. He or she may order an imaging test of the affected area for a more complete view or a blood test to help diagnose arthritis or other inflammatory conditions that can cause back and neck pain. This information will assist the provider in determining the reason for your discomfort.

What are possible complications of neck and back pain?

  • Depression: Back or neck pain can disrupt all aspects of life. This includes work, physical exercise, social activities and sleep. The anxiety and stress caused by the change in movement and pain can lead to depression.
  • Loss of productivity: Back pain is the most common reason for disability in working adults.
  • Nerve damage: If your back pain is from a herniated disk, pressure on the spinal nerves may cause a variety of problems, such as weakness, numbness or severe shooting pain that travels from the back to the leg.
  • Weight gain: Loss of movement and inability to exercise can lead to weight gain and the loss of muscle strength.

Can I prevent neck and back pain?

The following may help to prevent spine pain:

  • Do exercises that improve your balance.
  • Do not smoke.
  • Exercise regularly. Learn back-strengthening exercises to keep your back muscles strong. Warm up with stretching exercises before doing back exercises.
  • Get enough vitamin D and calcium in your diet.
  • Maintain correct posture while sitting, standing and sleeping.
  • Practice correct lifting techniques. Do not lift heavy items. When you do lift something, bend your legs, keep your back straight and then slowly lift your body and the object.
  • Reduce emotional stress that may cause muscle tension.
  • Stay at a healthy weight.
  • Use telephones, computers and other equipment correctly.
  • Wear a seat belt in motor vehicles in case of a collision.

When should I seek immediate medical attention?

These are signs of a serious condition that needs medical attention right away:

  • Fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher, or as advised by your healthcare provider.
  • Pain after an injury or a fall.
  • Severe back or neck pain that does not decrease with medicine and rest.
  • Trouble urinating, loss of bladder or bowel control, with weakness in either leg. 
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Weakness, numbness, or tingling in your legs or arms.

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