Chronic Back Pain: Introduction

Many people might think that it should be easy to find an effective treatment for the very common condition of chronic back pain. Physicians and researchers have developed sophisticated technology and can cure cancers and some genetic illnesses with new treatments and medications. It is surprising that when it comes to making people with back pain feel better, success is not so common as we all would like. Some even think success is becoming even more difficult, especially as our population gets older and as obesity increases in our society.

Most people who develop new, acute back pain will have nearly complete relief within six weeks. Some studies report that up to 90% of people with acute low back pain get better on their own no matter what they do or don’t do. People with acute back pain get better despite what their physicians prescribe or don’t prescribe. This explains why many people have their own “cure” for dealing with an episode of acute back pain, including treatments like massage, medications, manipulation, and even watchful waiting.

A small but substantial number of people with acute back pain do not get better, and eventually develop chronic back pain. Chronic pain is pain that has lasted longer than three to six months, long after most acute back spasms should have gotten better on their own. After chronic pain sets in, a person with back pain usually has many important questions: “Will I need surgery to get rid of my back pain?” “Should I exercise?” “What can I do about work?” These concerns about back pain can worsen due to fear of increased pain, frustration from not being able to do work or recreational activities, hopelessness about the future, and loss of financial security from missed work opportunities. The situation affects not only the patient, but his or her entire family.

This Guide has been developed by the UI Spine Center to present to patients and their families a clear explanation of the components of chronic back pain, and offers effective and safe recommendations for managing the frustrating condition of chronic back pain.