Chronic neck and back pain are the most common musculoskeletal complaints, with up to 20% of the population experiencing this pain at any given time (1, 2). Not only does this create a great burden on a personal, societal, and economic level, but it can be incredibly difficult to find relief from these frustrating conditions due to the wide variety of root causes and symptoms.
What are common symptoms of neck and back pain?
While symptoms may vary for each person, the most typical symptom of neck and back pain is some form of sharp, dull, burning, or shooting pain. This pain may be concentrated in one spot, or cover a large area (3). Some people find that their arms or legs tingle or fall asleep, while others can trace lines of shooting pain from their neck to their fingers, or from their back to their thigh, calf, or toes. For others, including children and teens, pain may show up as a persistent ache, especially after looking at a device, sitting, or standing in one posture for an extended period of time (3, 4). For as many different types of chronic neck and back pain there are, there are at least as many root causes, which is part of what can make this chronic pain so hard to treat.
What are some possible root causes?
Lifestyle factors, such as straining, improper form or overuse, muscle tension, obesity, and smoking can all cause serious chronic pain. Pain from strenuous or improper muscle use can result from attempting to carry too much weight with poor form while working out or doing physical labor, from poor posture while sitting, standing, or looking at a device, or even from repetitive movements (4). Muscle tension, especially from chronic stress, improper posture, or teeth grinding can cause chronic neck pain (5). Smoking reduces blood and oxygen supply, also increasing the risk of pain (5). Lastly, obesity often causes higher levels of inflammation throughout the body, triggering increased levels of neural damage and resulting in a greater risk of pain as well (6).
Injury is another common source of chronic neck and back pain. Any sort of trauma, including strains, sprains, ligament or muscle tears, fractures, and herniated or pinched discs can all result in long-term pain (3). This trauma can occur as a result of an event such as a fall or car accident, or from long-term strain from muscle tension or poor posture (5). Chronic pain is especially common in those who have experienced accidents resulting in brain trauma (see this recent article for more information on keeping your brain healthy and avoiding head injury) (7). The general effects of aging, as well as more specific age-related degeneration such as osteoporosis, compression fractures, and tumors or spurs on the spine are other risk factors for chronic pain (3).
What does conventional treatment offer?
Initial measures to treat chronic neck and back pain generally involve icing, heating, stretching, and sometimes exercise to flex or strengthen specific muscles (3). Other physicians may prescribe braces or corsets, as well as NSAIDs, muscle relaxants, opioids, and even nerve blockers (3). For the most extreme cases of chronic pain, invasive surgeries may be recommended (8).
While some people may find relief from these measures, studies are finding that all forms of invasive procedures are associated with high risks of adverse effects (8, 9). Even non-invasive pain management options, such as NSAIDs and opioids, still have a very high risk of complications. These complications include adverse side effects, addiction, and long-term toxicity that has resulted in many patients and physicians determining that the risk of pharmaceuticals outweighs the benefit for chronic pain (more on the risks of opioids here) (1, 8). In terms of chronic back pain treatments, one study found that no conventional treatment stands out as a definitive solution (8).