Types of Back Pain and What They Mean

back pain

Back pain can be annoying or completely incapacitating. Since spine health is particularly vital to everyday function and mobility, you’ll want to closely monitor your back pain to accurately relay your symptoms to a doctor.

Here is a brief breakdown of the types of back pain symptoms you can have and what they might mean.

Acute, Subacute and Chronic Pain

If you are experiencing back pain, track how long your symptoms last. This information can help doctors diagnose the issue you may be dealing with.

Here are the three major types of pain according to the longevity of symptoms.

Acute Pain

Acute pain, or short-term pain, can last anywhere from a day up to four weeks. You can typically attribute acute pain to a specific event or injury, such as lifting a heavy box, falling down or bending the wrong way while doing yardwork.

Most often, acute pain will resolve itself as the muscles heal or the swelling goes down. However, you may want to visit the doctor depending on the severity of the pain and whether it’s interfering with your everyday life.

Subacute Pain

Subacute pain lasts anywhere from four to 12 weeks. At this point, a preliminary doctor’s appointment is recommended to see if the problem will heal itself or if it is likely to cause chronic pain.

Chronic Pain

Chronic pain lasts longer than 12 weeks. In some cases, this pain is stabbing and severe, and other times, it’s a constant dull ache or a series of flare-ups. If left untreated, chronic pain can be debilitating and negatively impact the psyche.

Unfortunately, the source of chronic pain is often difficult to diagnose. In the case of an obvious injury, chronic pain may persist even after your body heals the trauma. Sometimes, the pain cannot be traced to an obvious source, and the end goal becomes symptom management.

Specific Back Pain Symptoms

As you note your symptoms, you should also keep track of details such as:

  • The general feeling – Is the pain achy, dull, throbbing, stabbing, searing or electric?
  • Severity – Is the pain all-consuming? Does it subside with aspirin or ibuprofen?
  • Location – Is the pain located in the thoracic, middle or lower back? Does it radiate to other body parts?
  • Changes in pain – Does sitting, standing or lying down dull the pain (or make it worse)?
  • Mobility – Are you still able to walk? Can you transfer to a chair or bed easily?
  • Other symptoms – Do you also experience swelling, fever, numbness, chest tightness or incontinence?

Here are some common back pain symptoms and their usual causes.

Lower Back Spasms

Lower back spasms are painful contractions of the lower back muscles often caused by:

  • Repetitive motions like swinging a bat or lifting products onto shelves
  • Sudden strain on a weak back

Future spasms can be prevented by strengthening the back muscles through exercise, stretching and avoiding the movements that triggered the pain. You can usually mask current symptoms with over-the-counter pain medicine, heat and cold therapy, rest or prescription muscle relaxants.

However, sometimes back spasms are a symptom of a more serious problem like:

  • Facet joint osteoarthritis
  • Degenerative disk disease
  • Spinal stenosis
  • Herniated disk

In these cases, you will need to contact a doctor and undergo imaging tests.

Pain From Lower Back to Buttocks and Legs

If you have pain that originates in your lower back and radiates down one leg or all the way to your foot, you could have sciatica. Other symptoms may include numbness and tingling or worsening of symptoms when you sit down.

The word “sciatica” simply means that something is pressing on the sciatic nerve that runs from your spine down your leg. There are many underlying problems that can cause sciatica, such as:

  • Herniated disk
  • Degenerative disk disease
  • Isthmic spondylolisthesis
  • Degenerative spondylolisthesis
  • Spinal stenosis
  • Tumor
  • Cyst

Both common and severe illnesses, like arthritis and cauda equina syndrome, can mimic the symptoms of sciatica, so you should not attempt to self-diagnose your issue.

Pain That Moves

Low-level or sharp pain with no clear source may not indicate a back problem at all. This phenomenon is called “referred pain,” a type of discomfort originating elsewhere in the body but felt in the spine, lower back or groin.

Referred pain happens when your brain can’t distinguish where pain signals are coming from. Thus, back pain that moves may be a symptom of:

  • Kidney stones
  • Gallstones
  • An enlarged prostate
  • Prostatitis
  • Prostate cancer
  • Abdominal aortic aneurysm

Back Pain Diagnosis and Treatment at Complete Care

Sometimes back pain is so excruciating that you cannot wait weeks or months for an appointment with a specialist. If you’re struggling with pain and need help fast, Complete Care can help. Our physicians are fully equipped to handle both minor and major medical emergencies, including back injuries. We even have on-site ER imaging and lab testing so you get the answers you need right away.

For immediate treatment, visit the Complete Care nearest you.