Maintaining Good Health Even When You're Busy

When It's More Than Pain: 3 Medical Conditions That Can Start With Back Pain

by Caitlin Obara

Back pain is a common problem and is often caused by injuries, or brushed off as a sign of increasing age. However, back pain should be taken seriously because it can be a warning sign of chronic conditions or escalate to have profound musculoskeletal and/or neurological effects.

Ankylosing Spondylitis

Ankylosing spondylitis (AS) is a type of inflammatory arthritis that typically affects the spine and pelvis. People with AS may have vague back pain, which often begins in their teens. Eventually, the pain can escalate to affect the entire central skeleton. Chronic inflammation of the spine can eventually cause fusion of the vertebrae, leading to spinal deformities and limited movement. Similar joint fusions can also occur in the pelvis.

AS is also associated with damage to the sternum and ribs. If these areas become fused, breathing is compromised because the ribcage cannot expand as normal. Unlike other forms of inflammatory arthritis, there are few tests to aid in diagnosis. Suppressing inflammation and using physical therapy to maintain flexibility are among the most common treatment approaches for AS.

Cauda Equina Syndrome

Cauda equina syndrome (CES) can have many underlying causes, such as trauma, spinal tumors, or narrowing of the vertebrae in the lumbar spine (stenosis). When CES is attributed to spinal stenosis, there may be a sudden shift from purely back pain to experiencing severe neurological symptoms. People with lumbar stenosis may have a lengthy history of back pain before it reaches the point of impacting the nerves.

Saddle anesthesia is a major symptom of CES. Additionally, CES may disrupt normal urinary and bowel functions. Prompt treatment when you notice any signs of numbness, incontinence, or urinary retention can decrease the likelihood of long-term damage to the nerves if the spinal cord can be decompressed. Unfortunately, some people experience long-term or permanent damage. Supportive measures, such as self-catheterization, are necessary to compensate for the inability to control bodily functions.


Similar to CES, sciatica is caused by trauma or degenerative processes that affect the lower spine and cause pressure on the sciatic nerve. Most commonly, herniated discs or stenosis are the underlying cause. Sciatica has a distinct type of pain that radiates from the lower back, down the legs. Depending on the exact location of compression, you may experience radiating pain down one or both legs.

Since many instances of sciatica can be resolved with sufficient rest and use of anti-inflammatory medications, taking self-care seriously can be vital to prevent sciatica from escalating to a permanent problem. Also, if you are prone to experiencing sciatica, being especially cautious about lifting objects or doing activities that increase pressure on your lower back can reduce future episodes. When sciatica is unrelenting, surgeries to alleviate the pressure are often effective to avoid long-term damage to the sciatic nerve.

Back pain should always be evaluated by a medical professional and should be treated as an emergency if you experience neurological symptoms. Although most causes of back pain can be managed with simple treatments, some instances can be indicative of serious conditions. Contact a group like Orthopaedic Associates Of Rochester to learn more.