Colgan Osteopath in Kettering Northamptonshire
Low Back Pain
Low back pain is one of the main reasons Americans visit their doctor. For adults over 40, it ranks third as a cause for doctor visits, after heart disease and arthritis.
Eighty percent of people will have low back pain at some point in their lives. And nearly everyone who has low back pain once will have it again.
Very few people who feel pain in their low back have a serious medical problem. Ninety percent of people who experience low back pain for the first time get better in two to six weeks. Only rarely do people with low back pain develop chronic back problems.
With these facts in mind, you can be assured that back pain is common, that it usually only causes problems for a short period of time, and that you can take steps to ease symptoms and prevent future problems.
The human spine is made up of 24 spinal bones, called vertebrae Vertebrae are stacked on top of one another to create the spinal column. The spinal column gives the body its form. It is the body’s main upright support.
From the side, the spine forms three curves. The neck, called the cervical spine, curves slightly inward. The
mid back, or thoracic spine curves outward. The outward curve of the thoracic spine is called kyphosis. The low back, also called the lumbar spine, curves slightly inward. An inward curve of the spine is called lordosis.
The lumbar spine is made up of the lower five vertebrae. Doctors often refer to these vertebrae as L1 to L5. The lowest vertebra of the lumbar spine, L5, connects to the top of the sacrum, a triangular bone at the base of the spine that fits between the two pelvic bones. Some people have an extra, or sixth, lumbar vertebra. This condition doesn’t usually cause any particular problems.
Each vertebra is formed by a round block of bone, called a vertebral body. The lumbar vertebral bodies are taller and bulkier compared to the rest of the spine. This is partly because the low back has to withstand pressure from body weight and from daily actions like lifting, carrying, and twisting. Also, large and powerful muscles attaching on or near the lumbar spine place extra force on the lumbar vertebral bodies.
A bony ring attaches to the back of each vertebral body. When the vertebrae are stacked on top of each other, these rings form a hollow tube. This bony tube surrounds the spinal cord as it passes through the spine. Just as the skull protects the brain, the bones of the spinal column protect the spinal cord.
The spinal cord extends down to the L2 vertebra. Below this level, the spinal canal encloses a bundle of nerves that goes to the lower limbs and pelvic organs.
The Latin term for this bundle of nerves is cauda equina, meaning horse’s tail.
As the spinal cord travels from the brain down through the spine, it sends out nerves on the sides of each vertebra called nerve roots. These nerve roots join together to form the nerves that travel throughout the body and form the body’s electrical system. The nerve roots that come out of the lumbar spine form the nerves that go to the lower limbs and pelvis. The thoracic spine nerves go to the abdomen and chest. The nerves coming out of the cervical spine go to the neck, shoulders, arms, and hands.
It is sometimes easier to understand what happens in the spine by looking at a spinal segment. A spinal segment includes two vertebrae separated by an intervertebral disc, the nerves that leave the spinal cord at that level, and the small facet joints that link each level of the spinal column.
The intervertebral disc normally works like a shock absorber. It protects the spine against the daily pull of gravity. It also protects the spine during heavy activities that put strong force on the spine, such as jumping, running, and lifting.
An intervertebral disc is made up of two parts. The center, called the nucleus, is spongy. It provides most of the disc’s ability to absorb shock. The nucleus is held in place by the annulus, a series of strong ligament rings surrounding it. Ligaments are strong connective tissues that attach bones to other bones.
Between the vertebrae of each spinal segment are two facet joints. The facet joints are located on the back of the spinal column. There are two facet joints between each pair of vertebrae, one on each side of the spine. A facet joint is made of small, bony knobs that line up along the back of the spine. Where these knobs meet, they form a joint that connects the two vertebrae. The alignment of the facet joints of the lumbar spine allows freedom of movement as you bend forward and back.
The surfaces of the facet joints are covered by articular cartilage. Articular cartilage is a smooth, rubbery material that covers the ends of most joints. It allows the bone ends to move against each other smoothly, without pain.
Two spinal nerves exit the sides of each spinal segment, one on the left and one on the right. As the nerves leave the spinal cord, they pass through a small bony tunnel on each side of the vertebra, called a neural foramen. (The term used to describe more than one opening is neural foramina.)
The lumbar spine is supported by ligaments and muscles. The ligaments are arranged in various layers and run in multiple directions. Thick ligaments connect the bones of the lumbar spine to the sacrum (the bone below L5) and pelvis.
The muscles of the low back are also arranged in layers. Those closest to the surface are covered by a thick tissue called fascia.
The middle layer, called the erector spinae, has strap-shaped muscles that run up and down over the lower ribs, chest, and low back. They blend in the lumbar spine to form a thick tendon that binds the bones of the low back, pelvis, and sacrum.
The deepest layer of muscles connects along the back surface of the spine bones. The muscles also connect the low back, pelvis, and sacrum. These deepest muscles coordinate their actions with the muscles of the abdomen to help hold the spine steady during activity.
There are many causes of low back pain. Doctors are not always able to pinpoint the source of a patient’s pain. But your doctor will make every effort to ensure that your symptoms are not from a serious medical cause, such as cancer or a spinal infection.
The vast majority of back problems are a result of wear and tear on the parts of the spine over many years. This process is called degeneration. Over time, the normal process of aging can result in degenerative changes in all parts of the spine.
Injuries to the spine, such as a fracture or injury to the disc, can make the changes happen even faster. There is strong evidence that cigarette smoking also speeds up degeneration of the spine. Scientists have found links among family members, showing that genetics plays a role in how fast these changes occur.
The intervertebral disc changes over time. At first, the disc is spongy and firm. The nucleus in the center of the disc contains a great deal of water. This gives the disc its ability to absorb shock and protect the spine from heavy and repeated forces.
The first change that occurs is that the annulus around the nucleus weakens and begins to develop small cracks and tears. The body tries to heal the cracks with scar tissue. But scar tissue is not as strong as the tissue it replaces. The torn annulus can be a source of pain for two reasons. First, there are pain sensors in the outer rim of the annulus. They signal a painful response when the tear reaches the outer edge of the annulus. Second, like injuries to other tissues in the body, a tear in the annulus can cause pain due to inflammation.
With time, the disc begins to lose water, causing it to lose some of its fullness and height. As a result, the vertebrae begin to move closer together.
As the disc continues to degenerate, the space between the vertebrae shrinks. This compresses the facet joints along the back of the spinal column. As these joints are forced together, extra pressure builds on the articular cartilage on the surface of the facet joints. This extra pressure can damage the facet joints. Over time, this may lead to arthritis in the facet joints.
These degenerative changes in the disc, facet joints, and ligaments cause the spinal segment to become loose and unstable. The extra movement causes even more wear and tear on the spine. As a result, more and larger tears occur in the annulus.
The nucleus may push through the torn annulus and into the spinal canal. This is called a herniated or ruptured disc. The disc material that squeezes out can press against the spinal nerves. The disc also emits enzymes and chemicals that produce inflammation. The combination of pressure on the nerves and inflammation caused by the chemicals released from the disc cause pain.
As the degeneration continues, bone spurs develop around the facet joints and around the disc. No one knows exactly why these bone spurs develop. Most doctors think that bone spurs are the body’s attempt to stop the extra motion between the spinal segment. These bone spurs can cause problems by pressing on the nerves of the spine where they pass through the neural foramina. This pressure around the irritated nerve roots can cause pain, numbness, and weakness in the low back, buttocks, and lower limbs and feet.
A collapsed spinal segment eventually becomes stiff and immobile. Thickened ligaments and facet joints, scarred and dried disc tissue, and protruding bone spurs prevent normal movement. Typically, a stiff joint doesn’t cause as much pain as one that slides around too much. So this stage of degeneration may actually lead to pain relief for some people.
Mechanical and Neurogenic Pain
To best understand the cause of your pain, spine specialists sometimes divide low back pain into two categories:
- mechanical pain
- neurogenic pain
Mechanical back pain is caused by wear and tear in the parts of the lumbar spine. This type of pain is similar in nature to a machine that begins to wear out. Mechanical pain usually starts from degenerative changes in the disc. As the disc begins to collapse and the space between the vertebrae narrows, the facet joints may become inflamed. Mechanical pain typically gets worse after activity due to strain on the moving parts of the spine. Mechanical pain is usually felt in the back, but it may spread into the buttocks, hips, and thighs. The pain rarely goes down past the knee. Mechanical back pain usually doesn’t cause weakness or numbness in the leg or foot, because the problem is not from pressure on the spinal nerves.
Neurogenic pain means pain from nerve injury. Neurogenic pain occurs when spinal nerves are inflamed, squeezed, or pinched. This can happen when a disc herniates or when a nerve gets pinched where it leaves the spine. Recently it has also become known that when a disc ruptures, chemicals are released that inflame the nerves even if there is no pressure directly on the nerve. Neurogenic symptoms concern doctors more than mechanical pain because they can signal damage to the nerves and lead to weakness or numbness in the lower extremities.
The nerve pressure causes symptoms in the areas where the nerve travels, rather than in the low back. This happens because pressure on the spinal nerve affects structures away from the spine, such as the muscles. As a result, a person’s back may not hurt, yet the person feels pain, numbness, or weakness in the leg or foot. This indicates there’s a problem with the body’s electrical wiring. The pressure on the nerve affects how the body functions. Muscles weaken. Reflexes slow. Sensations of pins, needles, and numbness may be felt where the nerve travels.
The effects of spine degeneration or back injury can lead to specific spine conditions. These include
- annular tears
- internal disc disruption
- herniated disc
- facet joint arthritis
- segmental instability
- spinal stenosis
- foraminal stenosis
Our intervertebral discs change with age, much like our hair turns gray. Perhaps the earliest stage of degeneration occurs due to tears that occur in the annulus. These tears can result from wear and tear over a period of time. They can also be the result of a sudden injury to the disc due to a twist or increased strain on the disc that overpowers the strength of the annulus. These annular tears may cause pain in the back until they heal with scar tissue.
Internal Disc Disruption
Multiple annular tears can lead to a disc that becomes weak. The disc starts to degenerate and collapse. The vertebrae begin to compress together. The collapsing disc can be the source of pain because it has lost the ability to be a shock absorber between the vertebrae. This condition is sometimes referred to as internal disc disruption. This type of problem causes primarily mechanical back pain due to inflammation of the disc and surrounding structures.
A disc that has been weakened may rupture or herniate. If the annulus ruptures, or tears, the material in the nucleus can squeeze out of the disc, or herniate. A disc herniation usually causes compressive problems if the disc presses against a spinal nerve. The chemicals released by the disc may also inflame the nerve root, causing pain in the area where the nerve travels down the leg. This type of pain is referred to as sciatica.
Even a normal disc can rupture. Heavy, repetitive bending, twisting, and lifting can place too much pressure on the disc, causing the annulus to tear and the nucleus to rupture into the spinal canal.
Facet Joint Arthritis
The facet joints along the back of the spinal column link the vertebrae together. They are not meant to bear much weight. However, if a disc loses its height, the vertebra above the disc begins to compress toward the one below. This causes the facet joints to press together. Articular cartilage covers the surfaces where these joints meet. Like other joints in the body that are covered with articular cartilage, the facet joints can develop osteoarthritis as the articular cartilage wears away over time. Extra pressure on the facet joints, such as that from a collapsing disc, can speed the degeneration in the facet joints. The swelling and inflammation from an arthritic facet joint can be a source of low back pain.
Segmental instability means that the vertebral bones within a spinal segment move more than they should. In the lumbar spine, this can develop if the disc has degenerated. Usually the supporting ligaments around the vertebrae have also been stretched over time.
Segmental instability also includes conditions in which a vertebral body begins to slip over the one below it. When a vertebral body slips too far forward, the condition is called spondylolisthesis. Whatever the cause, this extra movement in the bones of the spine can create problems. It can lead to mechanical pain simply because the structures of the spine move around too much and become inflamed and painful. The extra movement can also cause neurogenic symptoms if the spinal nerves are squeezed as a result of the segmental instability.
Stenosis means closing in. Spinal stenosis refers to a condition in which the tissues inside the spinal canal are closed in, or compressed. The spinal cord ends at L2. Below this level, the spinal canal contains only spinal nerves that travel to the pelvis and legs. When stenosis narrows the spinal canal, the spinal nerves are squeezed inside the canal.
The pressure from the condition can cause problems in the way the nerves work. The resulting problems include pain and numbness in the buttocks and legs and weakness in the muscles supplied by the nerves. Because these nerves travel to the bladder and rectum, weakness in the these muscles can cause problems with control of the bladder and bowels.
Spinal nerves exit the spinal canal between the vertebrae in a tunnel called the neural foramen. Anything that causes this tunnel to become smaller can squeeze the spinal nerve where it passes through the tunnel. This condition is called foraminal stenosis, meaning the foramen is narrowed. As the disc collapses and loses height, the vertebral body above begins to collapse toward the one below. The opening around the nerve root narrows, squeezing the nerve. Arthritis of the facet joints causes bone spurs to form and point into the foramen, causing further nerve compression and irritation. Foraminal stenosis can cause a combination of mechanical pain and neurogenic pain from the irritated nerve root.
Symptoms from low back problems vary. They depend on a person’s condition and which structures are affected. Some of the more common symptoms of low back problems are
- low back pain
- pain spreading into the buttocks and thighs
- pain radiating from the buttock to the foot
- back stiffness and reduced range of motion
- muscle weakness in the hip, thigh, leg, or foot
- sensory changes (numbness, prickling, or tingling) in the leg, foot, or toes
Rarely, symptoms involve changes in bowel or bladder function. A large disc herniation that pushes straight back into the spinal canal can put pressure on the nerves that go to the bowels and bladder. The pressure may cause symptoms of low back pain, pain running down the back of both legs, and numbness or tingling between the legs in the area you would contact if you were seated on a saddle. The pressure on the nerves can cause a loss of control in the bowels or bladder.
If the pressure isn’t relieved, it can lead to permanent paralysis of the bowels and bladder. This condition is called cauda equina syndrome. Doctors recommend immediate surgery to remove pressure from the nerves.
Colgan Osteopath Kettering, Northamptonshire. Sciatica and Low Back Pain.
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