Most people will experience back pain during their lifetime. Some patients fear the worst, especially when pain is severe. Although back pain can be caused by fracture, disc disorder, or tumor, the most common cause is sprain or strain. Sprains and strains often result from excessive physical demands on the back. Lifting something too heavy, a sudden fall, car crash, or sports injury can cause soft tissues (ligaments, muscles, tendons) to
stretch too much.
The spine includes vertebrae (bones), discs (cartilaginous pads or shock absorbers), the spinal cord and nerve roots (neurological wiring system), and blood vessels (nourishment). Ligaments link bones together, and tendons connect muscles to bones and discs. The ligaments, muscles, and tendons work together to handle the external forces the spine encounters during movement, such as bending forward and lifting.
Sprains and strains are similar disorders affecting different soft tissues in the spine. Sprains are limited to ligaments whereas strains affect muscles, tendons, or muscletendon combinations. Ligaments are strong flexible bands of fibrous tissue. Although ligaments are resistant to being stretched, they do allow some freedom of movement. Muscle is made up of individual and segmental strands of tissue. When back muscles encounter excessive external force, individual strands can stretch or tear while the rest of the muscle is spared injury.
To illustrate a sprain or strain, consider what happens when lifting something heavy. Initially muscles are recruited to manage the load. When the load or force exceeds the muscles' ability to cope, the force is shared with the ligaments. When a ligament is stressed beyond its strength, it can tear.
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