"Most types of neck and back pain arise from the muscles around the spinal column, and may be due to poor posture or previous injury," say doctors from the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at Singapore General Hospital, a member of the SingHealth group.

Causes of Back and Neck Pain

In younger patients, the sudden onset of neck or back pain may be due to a slipped intervertebral disc. The intervetebral discs are found between the individual bones (vertebra) of the spinal column, and act to facilitate movement of the spine and also as ‘shock absorbers’ to cushion the transmission of weight down the spinal column.

Slipped discs may press on surrounding nerves and result in pain, numbness and/or weakness in the arms and legs. When present in the legs, these symptoms are commonly referred to as ‘sciatica’ or ‘lumbago’. In older people, degenerative changes in the spine may lead to arthritis of the spine, and this may be a cause of pain. In some cases, bone spurs can press on surrounding nerves or even on the spinal cord, leading to pain, numbness and / or weakness in the arms and legs.

Diagnosing nec​k and back pain

Most cases of neck and back pain can be managed with rest, medication and strengthening exercises. Your family doctor will be able to advise you on the proper care. But in cases of persistent pain or suspected slipped disc, he or she may refer you to an orthopaedic specialist for a more thorough check-up. In most cases, standard x-rays will be ordered and in some cases special nerve function tests.

When a more serious problem is suspected or when surgery is being considered, you will normally be sent for Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). This is a sophisticated way of imaging the spine and is very accurate. It has the further benefit of being without any radiation as it is performed with the assistance of a magnetic field. Other less common but serious causes of neck and back pain include infection and cancer. In some of these, other special investigations may be needed for the diagnosis.

Learn about the various treatment options for back and neck pain in the next page.

Ref. S13