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Chronic Back Pain

Chronic back pain is caused by a number of different contributors, and is defined as back pain that lasts longer than three months or that occurs episodically.  It can affect people of all walks of life, regardless of age or physical condition.  

The medical community doesn’t understand everything about chronic back pain yet. Questions persist on why some people have it and others don’t; or why some episodes last longer than others; and why imaging results don’t always paint the correct picture. Imaging and blood work may even show things like lumbar degeneration or disc herniation, though these findings don’t prove useful because these positive findings often don’t come with pain or other symptoms at all. On the other hand, so many people with chronic back pain will receive no positive findings from blood work or imaging at all. 

The good news is that backs are just like any other body part, and the will heal.

We do have a good understanding of some common causes of chronic back pain as well as an understanding of how pain can manifest itself.  Many people experience going to bed feeling fine and waking up with significant back pain. This can be caused by swelling of a disc as it re-hydrates during the night.  Another common trigger is doing something simple like reaching for the milk carton and the back suddenly spasms. This is the result of poor motor control and the spasm is a protective mechanism.  Sometimes it is more obvious and we experience pain during an effort of some kind like sneezing or lifting something heavy. However focusing only on the possibility of what has been “damaged” can lead us into unnecessary imaging, inappropriate treatments and much higher healthcare costs while still not solving the underlying problem. 

Pain is defined as an unpleasant physical and emotional sensation that we experience when injured OR when there is a threat of injury and no actual tissue damage present. 

It is a protective mechanism our brain uses to keep us from getting hurt.  It has biological components, psychological components and sociological components. Unfortunately, we can get stuck in a loop where we get very good at experiencing pain and our brain tells us our back is hurting even when nothing has been done to injure it. This short video does an excellent job of explaining further.

If you experience this, here are some things to consider. 

  • Your back will heal- just like an arm or an ankle. If you twist your ankle one year, and then several years later you do it again, you don’t become fearful of having a ‘bad ankle’.  The same holds true for your back.  
  • Move around as much as you can as pain allows. Moving is better than resting. If it isn’t resolving quickly, considering seeing a chiropractor or physical therapist. They are trained to help relieve your symptoms and give you the tools needed to reduce the likelihood of future episodes, and help you learn to better manage such things on your own. 

If your chronic back pain is constant and not episodic, then a multi-modal approach is best, especially if it hasn’t responded well to individual treatments. There is excellent evidence for a multidisciplinary approach as well as solid evidence for exercise therapy and spinal manipulation. You can read the full guidelines from the American Academy of Family Physicians here.

You should have a team that includes a pain management physician, a chiropractor or physical therapist and a mental health therapist that work with you to help with your symptoms. A psychologist trained in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can be very helpful in these situations. If you’re having chronic back pain and have questions, please feel free to email me at [email protected]

Samuel S. Spillman, DC