Blog & research

Back and neck pain – symptoms, causes and treatment

Dr Raj Reddy | Spine Surgeon and Brain Surgeon | Neurosurgery

Neck or back pain is common and it can range from mild, annoying aches to severe, disabling pain. Dr Reddy explains why it happens and how to diagnose it.

Why does back or neck pain happen?

Most spinal pain happens as part of the normal ageing process. Our spines are comprised of a number of joints around the spinal cord and nerves. As we age, changes occur as the joints wear out. The joints and tissues can also become overgrown and compress neural structures. When joints can’t hold the bones in position, slippage and deformity can occur.

However, sometimes back or neck pain can be a warning sign of more serious conditions, including cancer, infection, autoimmune disease or a structural problem, which puts pressure on the spinal cord and nerves. This type of pain can also result from trauma.

What are the symptoms of changes to the spine that result from ageing?

The following are symptoms that may be caused by changes to the spine over time, known as degenerative spinal conditions:

  • Dull, burning, or sharp pain, which can be confined to a single spot or cover a large area
  • Arm and leg numbness or tingling
  • Sharp, shooting pain that radiates from your neck down your arm
  • Sharp, shooting pain that radiates from your lower back to your buttocks, and down your leg (sciatica)
  • Stiffness in your neck or back
  • Difficulties with walking and balance
  • Difficulties with coordination
  • Loss of bladder and bowel control with weakness in both legs are symptoms that require immediate medical attention

How is back or neck pain diagnosed?

You should see a general practitioner (GP) for a medical and physical exam. They may refer you for scans (such as a CT scan, an MRI scan and/or a bone scan) to assess your spine. Sometimes, you may need to get other tests such as specialised x-rays.

Dr Raj Reddy | Brain Surgeon and Spine Surgeon | Neurosurgery

How is back or neck pain treated?

If you have back or neck pain, it may simply improve with rest or activity modification. Over-the-counter pain relief medicines, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, may also help. Avoid movement that makes the pain worse.

Physiotherapy, acupuncture and massage therapy can be helpful. Low-impact exercise programs may improve your range of motion, increase your muscle strength, improve your flexibility and mobility, increase your endurance and reduce pain.

When can a surgeon help treat back or neck pain?

A surgeon can advise on further treatment if the above suggestions don’t improve your quality of life.

Your surgeon can assess your imaging and recommend cortisone steroid injections. An appropriate surgical operation, tailored to address your condition and circumstance, can also significantly reduce pain, your mobility and your quality of life.

What does a back or spine operation involve?

Because causes, symptoms and your condition can vary significantly, a surgical procedure must be tailored to you.

A surgeon can either do a traditional surgery or employ minimally invasive techniques (which involves a smaller incision and special microsurgical instruments). Minimally invasive techniques can shorten recovery time and reduce the risk of complications.

Most people who have a spinal operation need to start moving again either on the same or following day of surgery, because this helps their recovery. You may need to see a physiotherapist, who can advise on exercises to help you rebuild your strength.

Sometimes, health professionals will design a rehabilitation program to meet your needs. The goal of back and neck rehabilitation is to help you return to your highest level of functioning and independence, and improve your overall quality of life.

If you think you’ve had a serious neck injury, see a doctor immediately. Call an ambulance on triple zero (000). 


Read more about spinal conditions.

Read more of Dr Raj Reddy’s blogs here.