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Musculoskeletal Pain

Written by Ada’s Medical Knowledge Team

Updated on

This article contains self-care information for the selected condition. If you have questions or need more comprehensive treatment advice, please consult a medical professional.

What is Musculoskeletal Neck and Back Pain?

Musculoskeletal pain is a common condition that can affect the muscles and bones of the neck and the upper and lower back. Upper back pain is also called thoracic back pain.

Musculoskeletal thoracic and lower back pain can be caused by accidents, heavy lifting, intensive sport and medical conditions (such as arthritis, osteoarthritis).[1][2][3] Neck pain can be caused by sleeping in awkward positions or bad seated posture.[4][5]

The main symptoms are pain, discomfort and stiffness that can be felt in the neck, upper and lower back.

Diagnosis is usually based on medical history and physical examination by a healthcare professional. In some cases, an x-ray might be needed.

Treatment depends on the cause of the pain and can include physiotherapy, painkillers, warm packs and gentle massages.

Musculoskeletal back pain can be prevented by lifting things correctly, exercising regularly, stretching before sports.[1][2][3] Neck pain can be prevented by sleeping in a correct position and using a firm mattress.[4][5]

Musculoskeletal back and neck pain usually starts to get better within a week. However, in some cases it can take weeks or months to go away completely.[4][1][2][3][5]

If you think you or a loved one may be experiencing symptoms of muscuskeletal pain, try the free Ada app for a quick health assessment.

Causes of Musculoskeletal Neck and Back Pain

Musculoskeletal thoracic, lower back and neck pain are very common conditions which will be experienced by the majority of people at some point in their lives. Sometimes the pain can have no clear cause, and this situation is described as “non-specific neck or back pain”.

The most common causes of musculoskeletal neck pain are:

  • Poor posture while sleeping or sitting
  • Excessive muscle contraction due to stress
  • Muscle strain
  • Intense exercise
  • Injuries due to falls, traffic accidents or sports
  • Other medical conditions (cervical spondylosis, cervical radiculopathy and others).[4][5]

The most common causes of thoracic back pain and lower back pain are:

  • Poor posture
  • Lifting heavy objects incorrectly
  • Muscle strain or ligament sprain
  • Intense exercise
  • Injuries due to falls, traffic accidents or sports
  • Other medical conditions (such as a prolapsed disc, arthritis, osteoarthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, spondylolisthesis, fractures).[1][2][3]

Symptoms of Musculoskeletal Neck and Back Pain

The most typical symptoms of these conditions are:

  • Pain
  • Stiffness
  • Discomfort
  • Reduced mobility

Pain can be present as neck and shoulder pain, thoracic back pain or lower back pain. The pain can present as sharp, dull, aching or with tingling or burning sensations.

Pain can differ from person to person and also may involve radiating pain to the hip or even further down. Certain movements may make the pain better or worse. The muscles of the back may become stiff or hard.

Do these symptoms sound familiar? Try Ada to find out more.

Diagnosis

A diagnosis of musculoskeletal pain can be made by a doctor or other healthcare professional on the basis of your medical history, your back pain symptoms and of the physical exam.

The movement of the neck, back and legs is often checked. X-rays and other imaging techniques of the back and neck are usually not needed unless the pain is present for a long time or there are symptoms that point to a more serious condition.

Treating Musculoskeletal Neck and Back Pain

Most cases of musculoskeletal neck, upper back and lower back pain improve without any treatment in a matter of days or weeks. Nonetheless, here are some suggestions to help you with symptoms:

  • Stay active. While resting can feel like the most appropriate thing to do, it’s important to keep moving and continue with normal tasks and activities as much as possible. This helps quick recovery.[4][1][2][3][5]

  • Use a firm pillow and mattress, making sure you keep your head at the same height as the rest of your body when sleeping. This is useful specifically for neck pain relief.[4][5]

  • Make sure to maintain straight posture in your neck and back during daily activities.[4][5]

  • Apply hot and cold packs to the affected areas. Taking a hot bath can also help.[1][2][3]

  • Back and neck exercises and stretches can be done at home to help reduce neck, thoracic and lower back pain. Please ask your doctor for more information about how to do them correctly.[4][1][2][3][5]

  • Painkillers such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen can help relieve neck, thoracic and lower back pain. These come in the form of pills, tablets and gels.[4][1][2][3][5]

  • In rare, specific cases when a more serious condition is causing the pain, surgery might be needed.

Prevention

Musculoskeletal pain of the neck and back can be prevented in several ways. Pain in the neck can be prevented by keeping the neck in a neutral position when sleeping and sitting.1,5 Thoracic and lower back pain can be prevented by lifting things correctly and exercising regularly. Stretching before doing exercise and maintaining a healthy weight may also help.[1][2][3]

Prognosis

When not caused by more serious underlying medical conditions, musculoskeletal neck and back pain are not severe conditions. These usually start to get better within a week, even without treatment. However, in some cases it can take weeks or months to go away completely.


  1. nhs.uk (2020). Overview - Back pain. Accessed February 24, 2022.

  2. BMJ Best Practice (2022). Musculoskeletal lower back pain. Accessed February 24, 2022.

  3. Uptodate (2022). Evaluation of low back pain in adults.. Accessed February 24, 2022.

  4. nhs.uk (2020). Neck pain. Accessed February 24, 2022.

  5. Uptodate (2022). Beyond the Basics. Accessed February 24, 2022.

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