What Are the Different Types of Back Pain?

man with back pain from ankylosing spondylitis

Around 65 million Americans say they’ve had a recent spell of back pain. It can often feel like everyone around you is living their lives pain-free, but you still have to get on with things while in pain. That isn’t the reality at all.

Living with back pain can be debilitating, but you don’t have to put up with it. Understanding the different types of back pain and the causes can help you figure out which you are suffering from. Then, you can find the right back pain treatment that will work for you.

Read on for a comprehensive guide that lists all the most common types and causes of back pain. This will allow you to know as much information as possible before you visit a spine doctor.


Whiplash is a type of mild injury caused by a sudden movement of the head, often backward, but not always. Car accidents, roller coaster rides, and other types of sudden movements can cause whiplash.

Most whiplash sufferers feel pain in their neck, but it may spread to their upper back, depending on the severity. And in most cases, it causes acute pain that goes away in around two to three months.

Over-the-counter pain relief medications can be enough to handle whiplash pain. Applying a cold or hot compress for 15 minutes every three hours to the affected area can also help. You might not even need to see a back doctor in mild cases.

Muscle Strains and Lumbar Sprains

Muscle strain is an injury to a tendon or muscle, otherwise known as a “pulled muscle.” The fibers become overstretched and tear.

Lumbar sprains describe the stretching or tearing of a tendon or ligament.

These are different types of back pain, but they have almost identical back pain symptoms. You might feel the most intense pain in the hours and days right after the injury. Certain movements, like bending, may increase the pain for short bursts.

The pain should subside in a few weeks, though it’s not uncommon to still feel stiff and sore too.

The best treatment for these types of injuries is rest, ice packs, or heat compression. Over-the-counter pain relief medication can work too. As the injury heals, introducing light stretching and strengthening exercises could aid recovery.

Herniated Disks

Disks are rubbery cushions that sit between every vertebra in your spine. Every disk comprises a softer nucleus encased in a tough exterior. When the nucleus seeps out through a tear in the exterior, you have a herniated disk.

Some also call it a slipped or ruptured disk, but they all refer to the same issue. It can occur in any part of the spine, but it’s most common in the lower back. Some don’t have any symptoms, but others experience pain, numbness or tingling, and weakness in one or more limbs.

Aging, repetitive lifting of heavy objects, and being sedentary for long periods can cause herniated disks. The good news is that if you have a herniated disk, it’s unlikely that you will need back surgery.

Over-the-counter back pain relief might be all that’s needed until the disk heals. Physical therapy, muscle relaxants, and cortisone injections to the affected area are also effective pain treatments.

Nerve Pinch or Compression

Pinched nerves in spines occur when there is too much pressure on the nerve by the surrounding tissue. The causes of this could be inflammation from injury, herniated disks, stress from repetitive work, sports, or obesity.

Sciatica is a type of nerve compression that affects the sciatic nerve in the lower back. It can cause irritation, inflammation, and pinching that can feel like a sharp jolt.

A nerve pinch can cause chronic back pain if the pressure continues and causes permanent nerve damage. But if the pinched nerve is only compressed for a short period, then the pain should subside when the pressure does.

For mild cases, the treatment is the same as many other causes of back pain. Resting, warm or cold compresses, and over-the-counter pain medication can all help. But for more severe cases, physical therapy and stronger pain medications like corticosteroids may be the best path.

In extreme cases, surgery might be necessary. Spine doctors can perform spinal fusion where they connect two of the vertebrae and remove the affected disk.

Vertebral Fracture

A vertebral fracture is a dislocation or break anywhere in the spine. Injuries from car accidents, falls, and high-intensity sports can cause vertebral fractures.

Most people afflicted with this type of fracture will feel back pain until the fracture is almost healed. They often need to wear a backboard or brace until the injury heals and may also need physical therapy and rehabilitation.

The best pain relief and other treatments for this type of injury will depend on the severity. Surgery might be necessary depending on where the fracture is and how serious it is. Minor fractures can heal without surgery with lots of rest and time to heal.

Spine doctors may prescribe oral or injected pain relievers as well as anti-inflammatories.


Spondylolisthesis is where one vertebra in your spine slips forward, and it’s common in the lower spine. Trauma, fractures, genetics, or degeneration of the vertebrae or disk can cause it. Sports like gymnastics and weightlifting can also cause spondylolisthesis.

It can cause a lot of pain in the lower back and thighs. Other symptoms include tight muscles, tenderness, and stiffness in the lower back and hamstring muscles.

Surgery is a last resort when treating spondylolisthesis. Sufferers may need to wear a back brace and have physical therapy to readjust their spine. Anti-inflammatory pain medication or epidural steroid injections can help.

Which of the Different Types of Back Pain Is Affecting You?

No matter which type of back pain you have, you should always seek professional help. Your spine is one of the most precious parts of your body, so you need to give it the care and attention it deserves.

And if you need a spine doctor in NYC or New Jersey, New York City Spine can diagnose and treat your back pain. Check out our range of treatments and call us at (212) 506-0232 to set up a consultation.

At New York City Spine Surgery, our standard for excellent care means treating you as a whole person, and not just another spine disorder on a chart.

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