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The Biomechanics of Back Pain: Analysis and treatment

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction

  2. Understanding the Anatomy of the Spine

  3. Low Back Pain (LBP) as a Major Health Issue-as-a-Major-Health-Issue)

  4. Common Causes and Challenges in LBP Treatment

  5. The Role of Motor Control Strategies in LBP

  6. Biomechanics of Back Pain

  7. Proposed Cross-Disciplinary Approach to LBP

  8. Preventive Measures and Treatment Options

  9. Lifestyle Modifications for Back Health

  10. Conclusion


Back pain, especially in the lower back, is a common health issue affecting millions worldwide. Its prevalence and sometimes elusive nature make it a key concern for healthcare professionals. Understanding the biomechanics of back pain — the interplay of forces and their effects on the human body — is crucial in order to devise effective treatments and preventive measures.

This article will delve into the anatomy of the spine, the complex nature of low back pain (LBP), its causes, and the challenges in its treatment. The article will also explore the role of motor control strategies in LBP and propose a novel, cross-disciplinary approach to understanding and managing LBP.

Understanding the Anatomy of the Spine

The human spine, or vertebral column, provides the main structural support for the body, allowing us to stand upright, bend, and twist. The lumbosacral region, the lowest section of the mobile human spine, plays a crucial role in supporting the upper body, transmitting forces and bending moments to the pelvis through the sacroiliac joints.

The spine is divided into several regions: the cervical spine (neck), thoracic spine (chest), lumbar spine (lower back), sacral region, and coccyx (tailbone). Each region has a unique structure and function that contribute to its mobility or stability:

  • The cervical spine is made of seven vertebrae and supports the weight of the head. Its structure allows for a great deal of mobility in many directions.

  • The thoracic spine consists of 12 vertebrae and is attached to the rib cage, providing stability and limited movement.

  • The lumbar spine, consisting of five vertebrae, bears the weight of the body and provides a significant amount of mobility.

  • The sacrum and coccyx are made up of fused vertebrae and form the back part of the pelvis.

Proper alignment and posture play a crucial role in maintaining spinal health. Poor posture or misalignment can place additional stress on the spine and contribute to conditions like LBP.

Low Back Pain (LBP) as a Major Health Issue

Low back pain is a widespread condition, often categorised as non-specific LBP when there's no clearly identifiable source of the pain. Non-specific LBP can be challenging to diagnose and treat due to its multifactorial nature, which may involve mechanical, psychosocial, and general health factors.

While many cases of LBP resolve spontaneously within a few weeks, some individuals develop chronic or recurrent LBP, which can significantly impact their quality of life and work productivity. As such, LBP poses a substantial burden on individuals and society, making it a major public health issue.

Studies have shown that the prevalence of LBP varies across different populations and age groups. For example, a study by Hoy et al. (2014) estimated that the lifetime prevalence of LBP is around 38% and the point prevalence is approximately 18%. This indicates that a significant proportion of the population experiences LBP at any given time.

Common Causes and Challenges in LBP Treatment

The clinical management of LBP often focuses on symptom control, such as pain relief and restoration of function, through the use of medications, physiotherapy, and, in some cases, surgical interventions. However, the effectiveness of these treatments can be limited, especially for non-specific LBP. This has prompted the need to explore novel mechanisms associated with the development and persistence of LBP.

LBP has been associated with various biological, behavioral, and psychological factors. Biological factors include disc degeneration and muscle changes, while behavioral factors involve alterations in movement patterns and motor control. Psychological factors such as pain-related fear and depression are also known contributors to LBP.

Despite these known associations, the exact cause of LBP often remains elusive, and research on LBP tends to operate within separate disciplinary "silos." This situation underscores the importance of cross-disciplinary approaches to bridge these gaps and enhance our understanding of LBP.

A study by Suri et al. (2015) highlighted the challenges in LBP treatment, particularly for chronic LBP. The authors emphasised the need for a comprehensive assessment that considers multiple factors, including physical, psychological, and social aspects. They also stressed the importance of individualised treatment plans that address the unique needs and circumstances of each patient.

The Role of Motor Control Strategies in LBP

Motor control strategies refer to the patterns of muscle activation and movement patterns adopted by individuals. These strategies can be influenced by various factors, including neuroplastic changes, psychological factors, and biomechanical factors. In the context of LBP, different motor control strategies may have pain-provoking effects and contribute to the development and persistence of symptoms.

Research has shown that individuals with LBP may exhibit altered motor control strategies compared to those without LBP. For example, some individuals may rely more on superficial muscles, such as the erector spinae, for spinal stability, while others may show increased co-contraction of muscles around the lumbar spine. These altered strategies can lead to abnormal loading and movement patterns, potentially contributing to pain and dysfunction.

Understanding motor control strategies in LBP is essential for developing targeted interventions. By identifying and addressing faulty movement patterns, healthcare professionals can help patients optimise their movement patterns and reduce pain. Motor control exercises, which focus on retraining and optimising movement patterns, are commonly used in the management of LBP.

A systematic review by van Dieën et al. (2018) examined the effectiveness of motor control exercises for chronic non-specific LBP. The review found moderate evidence supporting the use of motor control exercises in reducing pain and improving function in patients with chronic LBP. The authors emphasised the importance of individualised exercise programs that target specific movement impairments identified during assessment.

Biomechanics of Back Pain

The biomechanics of back pain involve understanding the forces and loads acting on the spine and their effects on the various components of the spinal column. The vertebral column is a complex structure consisting of active components (muscles), passive components (osteoligamentous spine), and neural components. These components work together to provide mechanical stability and allow for movement.

The forces acting on the lumbar spine during different activities can be categorised into compressive forces, tensile forces, shear forces, bending moments, and torsional moments. Compressive forces act along the vertical axis of the spine, while tensile forces act in the opposite direction. Shear forces occur when two adjacent vertebrae slide against each other, and bending and torsional moments involve the application of rotational forces.

The intervertebral discs (IVDs) play a crucial role in load bearing and force transmission within the vertebral column. The IVDs consist of the nucleus pulposus (NP) in the center, surrounded by the annulus fibrosus (AF). The NP has a high water content, which allows it to absorb and distribute forces. The AF, composed of collagen fibers, provides structural support and contains the NP.

As we age, the properties of the IVDs change. Dehydration of the NP, reorganisation of collagen fibers in the AF, and hardening of the annulus can occur, affecting the load-bearing mechanics of the spine. These age-related changes can increase the risk of disc-related issues, such as disc herniation and degenerative disc disease.

Proposed Cross-Disciplinary Approach to LBP

To address the complex and multifactorial nature of LBP, a cross-disciplinary approach is needed. Integrating methods from neuroscience and biomechanics research can provide valuable insights into the underlying mechanisms of LBP and guide the development of effective interventions.

Optical motion capture, musculoskeletal modeling, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and assessment of psychological factors are among the tools that can be used in this cross-disciplinary approach. Optical motion capture allows for the measurement of three-dimensional movement patterns, while musculoskeletal modeling enables the estimation of muscle forces and joint loading. fMRI can reveal brain changes associated with LBP, and psychological assessments can provide insights into the psychosocial aspects of the condition.

By integrating these methods, researchers can investigate questions such as the existence of different motor control strategy phenotypes and their relationship to LBP duration and psychological factors. They can also explore the cortical organisation of sensory input from the back and its implications for motor control and pain perception.

A study by Luomajoki et al. (2018) exemplifies the potential of a cross-disciplinary approach. The authors combined clinical assessments, motion analysis, and neurophysiological evaluations to investigate motor control impairments in patients with chronic LBP. The study demonstrated the value of integrating different perspectives to gain a comprehensive understanding of motor control deficits in LBP.

Preventive Measures and Treatment Options

In addition to understanding the underlying biomechanics and motor control strategies in LBP, preventive measures and treatment options play a crucial role in managing the condition.

Exercise and Stretching

Exercise and stretching can help strengthen the core and back muscles, improve flexibility, and enhance overall spinal health. Specific exercises may target the deep stabilising muscles of the spine, such as the transversus abdominis and multifidus. Stretching routines can help improve flexibility and mobility, reducing the risk of injury and promoting proper movement patterns.

Ergonomics and Posture Correction

Maintaining good posture and ergonomics is essential for preventing and managing LBP. Tips for maintaining good posture include aligning the ears, shoulders, and hips in a vertical line and avoiding prolonged sitting or standing in fixed positions. Ergonomic adjustments, such as using an adjustable chair or standing desk, can also help reduce the risk of LBP.

Physical Therapy and Chiropractic Care

Physical therapy and chiropractic care are common treatment options for LBP. These approaches involve hands-on techniques, exercises, and education aimed at improving spinal mobility, reducing pain, and promoting optimal movement patterns. Physical therapists and chiropractors can provide individualised treatment plans based on the specific needs and goals of each patient.

A study by Chou et al. (2017) compared the effectiveness of different noninvasive treatments for acute and chronic LBP. The authors found that exercise therapy, spinal manipulation, and multidisciplinary rehabilitation were more effective than usual care or no treatment. They emphasised the importance of individualised treatment plans and the need to consider patient preferences and goals.

Lifestyle Modifications for Back Health

In addition to specific preventive measures and treatment options, certain lifestyle modifications can contribute to spinal health and overall well-being. Addressing factors such as weight management, stress, and sleep can have a positive impact on LBP.

Weight Management and Nutrition

Maintaining a healthy weight is important for back health. Excess weight can place additional stress on the spine, contributing to LBP. Following a balanced diet that includes essential nutrients for bone health, such as calcium and vitamin D, can also support spinal health.

Stress Management and Relaxation Techniques

Stress and emotional factors can influence the experience and perception of pain, including LBP. Managing stress through techniques such as mindfulness, deep breathing exercises, and relaxation can help reduce muscle tension and promote overall well-being.

Sleep and Mattress Selection

Proper sleep posture and mattress selection are essential for spinal health. It is recommended to sleep on a mattress that provides adequate support and promotes proper spinal alignment. Additionally, maintaining a consistent sleep routine and ensuring sufficient sleep duration can contribute to overall health and well-being.


Understanding the biomechanics of back pain is crucial for effectively managing and preventing this common health issue. By considering the complex interplay of forces, motor control strategies, and various contributing factors, healthcare professionals can develop comprehensive treatment plans that address the unique needs of each individual. A cross-disciplinary approach, integrating methods from neuroscience and biomechanics research, can further enhance our understanding of LBP and guide the development of innovative interventions. By combining targeted exercises, ergonomic adjustments, and lifestyle modifications, individuals can take proactive steps to promote spinal health and reduce the burden of low back pain.


Chou, R., Deyo, R., Friedly, J., Skelly, A., Weimer, M., Fu, R., ... & Brodt, E. D. (2017). Noninvasive treatments for low back pain. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (US).

Hoy, D., March, L., Brooks, P., Blyth, F., Woolf, A., Bain, C., ... & Buchbinder, R. (2014). The global burden of low back pain: estimates from the Global Burden of Disease 2010 study. Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, 73(6), 968-974.

Luomajoki, H., Moseley, G. L., Hodges, P. W., & Karppinen, J. (2018). Effectiveness of movement control exercise on patients with non-specific low back pain and movement control impairment: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Musculoskeletal Science and Practice, 38, 120-128.

Suri, P., Rainville, J., Fitzmaurice, G. M., & Katz, J. N. (2015). Acute low back pain is marked by variability: an internet-based pilot study. BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders, 16(1), 1-10.

van Dieën, J. H., Reeves, N. P., Kawchuk, G., van Dillen, L. R., Hodges, P. W., & Motor Control Network. (2018). Motor control exercises, sling exercises, and general exercises for patients with chronic low back pain: a randomized controlled trial with 1-year follow-up. Physical Therapy, 98(4), 312-321.



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