Neck pain and back pain can have a variety of causes but both can lead to very severe pain that can really bring down your quality of life. It can take some time to discover the underlying cause of neck pain or back pain, and to find the right treatment that can help bring some relief.

The neck and spine: more than just a collection of bones

The neck and spine are crucial to our posture, movement and ability to walk and run. These parts of the body are put under huge amounts of pressure each and every day of our lives.

The spine also has a key role in protecting the fragile spinal cord. Peripheral nerves carry messages to and from the body through carefully placed gaps in the vertebrae. Abdominal muscles attached to the spine also support the abdominal organs.  The neck and spine are therefore structurally very robust with strong ligaments, muscles, and 33 bones (vertebrae).

The vertebrae are divided into different regions:

  • The coccyx and sacrum are the vertebrae at the very bottom of the spine.
  • The lumbar vertebrae form the part of the spine behind the abdomen.
  • The thoracic vertebrae form the middle region of the spine.
  • The cervical vertebrae in the neck attach the spine to the skull.

Although the components of the spine are knitted together to form a very strong structure, the vertebrae have to be protected from grinding against one another as we bend, flex and rotate during normal movement. Cushioning between the vertebrae is provided by spongy intervertebral discs.

Why do I get back pain or neck pain?

The neck and back are part of the spine and one tends to affect the other. Most causes of back pain can also lead to neck pain. Neck pain and back pain can be caused by a number of factors:

  • Muscle and ligament sprains are the most common causes of back pain. They are usually the result of lifting heavy objects, moving in an unusual way, over-vigorous exercise or an accident.
  • Age-related degeneration of the intervertebral discs of the lumbar spine.
  • Osteoporosis, a condition in which the bones become less dense, can lead to fractures of the vertebrae.
  • A herniated intervertebral disc, otherwise known as a slipped disc, develops when the intervertebral disc tears and the spongy filling pushes out between the vertebrae.
  • Fibromyalgia is a generalised pain condition that often causes pain in the muscles and ligaments of the neck and back.
  • Autoimmune diseases, like ankylosing spondylitis, psoriatic arthritis and rheumatoid arthritis can lead to degeneration of the vertebrae.
  • Problems in the abdominal organs such as a stomach ulcer, pneumonia, prostate gland problems, infections or cancer can be the cause of referred pain in the back.

Perhaps because of the range of causes, back pain and neck pain are a very common reason for GP visits and time off work. Although typically a result of muscular problems, back pain can be caused by more serious conditions. For example, a slipped disc can press on the nerves that exit the spine, which causes nerve root syndromes like sciatica.

Injury to the spine may also cause spinal cord compression. If not treated, these conditions can worsen and lead to long-term damage. If you suffer from prolonged back pain, you should try to find out what is causing it.

Types of back pain and neck pain

The pain associated with back and neck injury can be severe and varies depending on the cause. Pain can be constant or might come and go, can feel deep or near the skin, and can range from a dull ache to a sharp, stabbing pain.

The type of back pain or neck pain you experience can help with diagnosis. If the pain occurs in a specific region, it is usually due to a sprain or muscle injury. Back pain caused by a slipped disc can be much more severe and can occur much later than the original injury. It usually causes a dull ache in addition to a sharp pain that can spread to different parts of the body, especially if the nerve roots are affected. Pressure on the nerves or spinal cord can also cause muscle weakness or pins and needles in your legs.

Back pain: more than just a pain

Back pain is very common. Statistics show that 70% of people have experienced back pain by the age of 60 and that it is most common in men, although women are prone to it during pregnancy. Back pain is much more than just pain though. Its effects are significant and can inhibit you in many aspects of daily life. Having a bad back can stop you:

  • Walking and moving around
  • Sleeping
  • Working
  • Spending time taking part in hobbies or with family.

Back pain can become so severe that simple events like coughing, sneezing or bending can be excruciating.  In 90% of cases, back pain resolves after a few months but in other cases the pain remains and continues to get worse. This is especially the case with referred pain from cancer or conditions like ankylosing spondylitis.