What Causes Back Pain?

Why is the back such a pain? Dr. Rob gives tips to put the pain behind you.

Rob Lamberts, MD
6-minute read
Episode #30

Raise your hand if you have ever had back pain. If my readers are a representative sample, 85% of you are raising your hand. Now, to avoid getting funny looks, please put your arm down or pretend you are stretching. I don’t want my readers getting a reputation.

Back pain is one of the top reasons people visit the doctor, and it costs an estimated $100 billion in the US each year. If one of your New Year’s resolutions was to exercise, back pain is an important topic, as nearly 75% of people who injure their back give up sports and physical activity. It certainly ended my Olympic pole-vaulting dream.

The Anatomy of the Back

Before I talk about the causes of back pain, I first need to discuss the anatomy of the back. Your back is made up of three main parts:

The spine, which is the load-bearing beam of your body. It’s made up of bones called vertebrae that are stacked on top of each other.

The spinal cord, which is the cable system of the body. It carries information back and forth between the brain and the rest of the body in the form of electrical impulses.

The back muscles, which extend the length of the spine, stabilizing it and giving it movement when needed.

The bones in your spine aren’t just stacked up like Legos; between each vertebra is a soft piece of cartilage called an interverterbral disc. These discs serve two purposes:

  1. Shock absorber: the discs act as cushioning so that the bones don’t grind on each other

  2. Separator: because of the discs the vertebra are far enough apart to be able to bend. The muscles around the spine do the work of bending.

Nerves and the Back

As you may know, the brain is connected to the nerves in your body via the spinal cord. Motor nerves take the messages from the brain and tell the muscles to move and the body’s organs to do what they do.  Sensory nerves collect info from the outside world and send it to the brain.  The points where these nerves connect to the spinal cord are called nerve roots.  The motor and sensory nerves connect to the spinal cord after entering the spine through little holes between each vertebra. When a person “pinches a nerve,” it is these nerve roots that are affected.  Click here for more on pinched nerves.


Please note that all content here is strictly for informational purposes only. This content does not substitute any medical advice, and does not replace any medical judgment or reasoning by your own personal health provider. Please always seek a licensed physician in your area regarding all health related questions and issues.