Understanding Back Pain

Adapted from Taking Control of Your Back Pain booklet

Understanding your spine

Your spine is one of the hardest working parts of your body. It keeps you upright when you’re sitting and standing, supports your head and upper body, allows you to bend and move, and protects your spinal cord.

The spine is made up of 24 small bones stacked on top of each other. These bones are called vertebrae.

Between the vertebrae are flat, round intervertebral discs. These discs have flexible outer rings with a jelly-like centre that harden as you get older. They act as shock absorbers for the spine, as well as allowing your spine to move.

Connecting each vertebrae are small joints called facet joints. These joints also give the spine the ability to bend and move.

Strong ligaments (bands that run between bones) and muscles provide support and stability to the spine.

A small tunnel is created by the vertebrae to protect the spinal cord as it threads down through the middle of the spine. The spinal cord contains nerves that connect the brain to all the other parts of the body. Nerves branch out from the spinal cord through spaces between each of the vertebrae. These nerves are called nerve roots.

Your spine is classified into three main regions:

  • The cervical spine, or neck, is made up of the seven vertebrae below your head.
  • The thoracic spine, or upper back, is made up of 12 vertebrae that connect to each of your ribs.
  • The lumbar spine, or lower back, is made up of five larger vertebrae. Sitting below the lumbar spine is a triangular shaped bone called the sacrum that connects to your pelvis.

You may hear your doctor or health professional referring to parts of your spine using letters and numbers.

  • The letters refer to the region of the spine, with C meaning the cervical spine, T meaning thoracic, and L meaning lumbar.
  • The number tells you which of the vertebrae in that part of the spine is affected. For example, C6 refers to the sixth bone in the neck. L4/5 refers to the area between the fourth and fifth bone in the lumbar spine.

What are the symptoms of back pain?

Back pain may be felt as a sharp pain, ache or spasm in the lower part of the back, or in the hips/buttocks. Your back may feel stiff, making it difficult to turn or bend.

Sometimes pain can also travel down one or both of your legs. You may also notice tingling (pins and needles) or numbness in your legs and/or feet. These symptoms can be caused by irritation of the nerve roots. An example of this type of pain is sciatica.

How long does back pain last?

Fortunately most people recover from back pain over a short period of time, often needing little treatment. Nine out of ten people will have recovered within two months.

However, half the people who get back pain will have pain again within a couple of years. Research tells us that if you return to your activities sooner, move as normally as possible and do more exercise you are much less likely to get back pain again. And, if you do it happens less often.

Should I see a doctor?

You should see your doctor as soon as possible if you experience any of the following:

  • Pain that does not improve after a few weeks, or starts getting worse
  • Difficulty passing or controlling urine
  • Loss of control of your bowels
  • Numbness around your back passage or genitals
  • Unsteadiness or difficulty walking
  • Tingling (pins and needles), numbness or weakness in one or both legs
  • Feeling unwell with sweats, chills, fevers or weight loss
  • Back pain if you know you have osteoporosis.

You should also talk to your doctor if your back pain:

  • Is severely affecting your ability to move, exercise, work or sleep
  • Affects your general health, causing you to gain weight, have falls or develop other health problems
  • Makes it difficult for you to manage any other health conditions you may have, such as diabetes or heart problems
  • Is affecting your mood, making you feel depressed, anxious or angry
  • Is causing you to take strong pain relieving medicines continuously for more than a few days.

More information and support


Originally printed in: Taking Control of your Back Pain (2015). Arthritis Australia

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