Approximately 80 percent of people worldwide develop back pain at some point in their life, and about 30 percent of people experience an episode of neck pain every year. Back and neck pain are most typically caused by mechanical disorders, which results from either overuse of the spine or changes experienced with getting older. These include muscle strains, osteoarthritis, and herniated discs. Other symptoms include muscle spasms and pain that radiates down the arms (i.e., radiculopathy) or legs (i.e., sciatica). About 10 percent of back and neck pain is associated with systemic illnesses, including rheumatologic diseases. Examples are rheumatic polymyalgia, ankylosing spondylitis, rheumatoid arthritis, tumors, and infections.
Back and neck pain can typically be diagnosed by a person’s medical history and physical exam. Diagnostic tests, such as X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and computerized tomography (CT), are reserved for those who do not get better with initial treatment. These tests can assess whether there is involvement of the muscles, discs, nerves, and other soft tissues.
It is important that people with back or neck pain continue their daily activities as much as possible to facilitate healing. Special exercises can be used to reduce pain and strengthen the muscles of the back and neck. Other treatments include placing ice on the affected area in the first 48 hours, followed by heat if it lasts longer than two days, over the counter pain relievers, and muscle relaxants. Surgery is reserved for a small number of patients, such as those with herniated discs or tumors.