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3 Common Types of Back Pain and How to Talk About Them

By Beth Jennings, PT, MPT, CHWC

As a physical therapist of several decades, I've heard many phrases for injuries, aches, or pains, from "I've got a slipped disc" to "I've thrown my back out."  

At FYZICAL – Forest Grove, our physical therapists are highly trained professionals who specialize in treating various types of back pain, including the 3 common types described here. 

Determining what's really going on in your back starts with you describing your symptoms to your physical therapist.

Back sprain or strain 

You fell off your bike, had a car accident, or lifted something, and now your back is tight and painful.  

An acute injury to the back can start suddenly or show up hours after an incident. The problem may be in the alignment of the spinal bones, strained muscles, sprained spinal joints, or some combination of the three. 

Physical therapy will focus on calming the tissues, improving the mobility of your spine, improving joint stability, and teaching you how to prevent a recurrence.  

The session may include hands-on treatment such as joint mobilizations, specific manual techniques, or massage. Early exercise will be gentle to help relieve pain and eventually progresses to strengthening exercises.  

You will learn self-care techniques and the best way to move your body for work or play to reduce the stress on your spine.  


Radicular Pain 

Radicular pain occurs when a spinal nerve root is compressed or irritated. This compression can result from conditions such as a herniated disc or a narrowing of bony canals between the spinal cord and where the nerves travel to other areas of the body.  

Symptoms could include pain, numbness, or tingling sensations. One or more of these symptoms could radiate a short distance or as far as the toes.  

Physical therapy treatment may involve gentle exercises and stretches to relieve pressure on the affected nerve and specific techniques to improve nerve mobility.  

Manual therapy techniques, such as mobilization or traction, may be employed to reduce nerve compression. Expect lots of education on proper body mechanics and ergonomics to prevent the worsening of symptoms and promote healing. 


Non-specific Back Pain 

Non-specific back pain refers to pain in the back that does not have a specific identifiable cause, such as a specific injury or an underlying medical condition.  

However, it can result from repetitive muscle strain, poor posture, muscle imbalances, or general wear and tear on the spine.  

Physical therapists seek to address the underlying factors contributing to the pain. Treatment may involve a combination of exercises to strengthen the muscles supporting the spine, stretching to improve flexibility, and postural education to promote proper alignment and body mechanics.  

Additionally, physical therapists may employ manual therapy techniques to alleviate pain, reduce muscle tension, and improve joint mobility. 


The Language of Symptoms 

Your FYZICAL – Forest Grove physical therapist will want to know what you feel and when. Consider the following regarding your symptoms: 

Type of symptom: Is the pain burning, sharp-shooting, vague, achy, or a deep ache? Any numbness and tingling? Any coldness in fingers, hands, or feet? Are you noticing weakness in your lower body? 

Location: Is the back pain in the lower or mid-back? Is it centrally located, in a tiny spot on the back, or is it felt broadly across the lower back? Does the pain travel into the hip, leg, or foot? If so, which part of the leg? All the toes or only certain ones? 

Triggers: Or what makes it worse? What are you avoiding because it brings on symptoms? Does prolonged sitting or standing change your symptoms? How about bending forward or backward? 

Relieving: What makes it feel better? What are the positions of comfort or self-treatments that are relieving your symptoms? 


It's important to note that these three types of back pain can often overlap and relaying what you are feeling is as important as the tests your PT will perform. 

We at FYZICAL – Forest Grove want you to get back to your life, so we are ready to address your back pain and tailor the treatment to your specific needs.  

Want to learn more? Contact us for an appointment with one of our top-notch physical therapists for an evaluation.  

Beth Jennings, PT, MPT, CHWC is a physical therapist of over 25 years and the owner of Beth Jennings Wellness, a health & wellness coaching business.

Disclaimer This blog is provided for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.