Back Pain

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Back pain is one of the leading causes of disability worldwide and one of the most common reasons people go to their doctor. Millions of people experience back pain at some point in their lives, making simple, everyday living a challenge.

Back pain can range from a dull and constant ache to a sudden and sharp pain that makes it hard to move. It can start quickly after an accident or injury, or it can be just a slight ache at first and then worsen slowly over time. It can occur in the neck or in the upper or lower back, and it can radiate down the leg (a condition called sciatica). Depending on its underlying cause or condition, back pain can go away by itself with simple home remedies and self-care, or it can require medical attention or even surgery.

Risks and Causes of Back Pain

The back is a complicated structure of bones, joints, muscles, discs, and nerves. When something breaks down or goes wrong with the way these parts fit together and move, pain can occur. It can happen to anyone, but some of the things that can increase the risk for back pain include:

  • Age: Back pain is more common in older individuals. Normal wear and tear can cause bones to weaken over time.
  • Poor physical fitness: Weak, unused muscles in the back can increase the risk of back pain.
  • Excess weight: Extra pounds can put pressure and strain on the back.
  • Poor posture: Slouching or sitting at a desk all day and not sitting up straight may lead to back pain.
  • Stress: Back tension that comes from stress can cause pain.  
  • Genes: Conditions like ankylosing spondylitis (a form of arthritis that affects the spine) can have a genetic component.
  • Smoking: Smokers may not get enough nutrients to the discs in their back.

Other causes and conditions that can result in back pain include:
Accidents and injury: A sprain or spinal compression fracture can occur after a serious fall, car accident, or other trauma.

  • Muscle and ligament strain: Lifting something heavy or simply leaning over or twisting awkwardly can cause back pain.
  • Mechanical or structural problems: Conditions like a ruptured or herniated disc, in which the outer layer of a disc tears and leaks and puts pressure on the spinal cord and nerves, or spondylolisthesis, in which a vertebra slips out of position, can result in pain.
  • Medical conditions: Arthritis, osteoporosis, and cancer can compromise the back, neck, and spine and cause pain. Tumors such as spinal schwannomas can put pressure on the spinal cord and vertebrae.


Treatment at the Weill Cornell Medicine Center for Comprehensive Spine Care

The Weill Cornell Medicine Center for Comprehensive Spine Care (CCSC) takes a multidisciplinary approach to treating back pain and conditions of the spine. The program is dedicated to identifying, diagnosing and treating the source of pain. This includes a thorough evaluation, selecting the best treatment options, and utilizing the most advanced technology.

The CCSC brings together a team of experts that offer the very best of non-operative and minimally invasive surgical treatment for patients. Those in need of treatment receive input from a broad team of specialists, including neurologists, physical and occupational therapists, acupuncturists, cognitive therapists, and other pain management experts.

Learn more about how the sources of back pain are diagnosed and treated. Or visit the pages below for more information about specific conditions of the back and spine that can be treated at Weill Cornell Medicine:

Reviewed by: Eric Elowitz, MD
Last reviewed/last updated: October 2016