Back and neck pain are the most common chronic pain conditions. Back and neck pain can arise from soft tissues, bony parts of the back and neck, and joints holding the spine in alignment. It can arise directly or indirectly from the discs in the back or neck, and it can occur when nerves and nervous tissue, normally protected by the bones of the spine, are compressed by those bones.
Back pain can range from a dull, constant ache to a sudden, sharp pain that leaves the individual suffering and/or incapacitated. Back pain can be acute (immediate) or chronic (long-term). Acute back pain usually gets better on its own without treatment. However, chronic back pain may require medication and/or surgery.
The back is an intricate structure of bones, ligaments, muscles, nerves, and tendons. The spine, or backbone, is made up of 33 bony segments called vertebrae. The vertebrae are arranged in a long vertical column and held together by ligaments that are attached to muscles by tendons. Between each vertebra lies a gel-like cushion called an intervertebral disc, consisting of a semi-fluid matter that is surrounded by a capsule of elastic fibers.
The spinal cord is an extension of the brain that runs through a long, hollow canal in the column of the vertebrae. The meninges (membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord), cerebrospinal fluid (fluid that circulates around the brain and spinal cord), fat, and a network of veins and arteries nourish and protect the spinal cord.
Thirty-one pairs of nerve roots emerge from the spinal cord through spaces in each vertebra. The spinal cord and peripheral (outside the brain and spinal column) nerves perform essential sensory and motor activities of the body. The peripheral nervous system conveys sensory information from the body to the brain and conveys motor signals from the brain to the body.
Back problems are the most frequent cause of activity limitations in working-age adults. The American Academy of Family Physicians estimates that about 85% of Americans experience back pain by age 50. More than 26 million Americans between the ages of 20-64 experience frequent back pain. Two-thirds of American adults will have back pain during their lifetime. Back pain is the leading cause of disability in Americans under 45 years old.
Each year 13 million people go to the doctor for chronic back pain. It is estimated that the condition leaves 2.4 million Americans chronically disabled and another 2.4 million temporarily disabled. Back pain is the second most common reason why individuals in the United States seek medical care from their primary care physicians.
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