The Back Pain Dictionary: 31 Medical Terms For Your Research

The Back Pain Dictionary: 31 Medical Terms For Your Research

According to the American Chiropractic Association, approximately 31 million Americans experience pain in their lower back at any given time. It’s no wonder, then, that the amount of information circulating has made doing back pain research an overwhelming task. There are excellent resources available to educate you not only about your spinal condition but about treatment alternatives (Spine-health and Spine Universe, to name just two), but it’s not hard to get lost—or to wonder which sources you can trust. 

The following “back pain dictionary” is intended as a research aide. You’ll likely come across many of these medical terms in your research, since they all describe relatively common conditions (albeit with complicated-sounding names). Bookmark the page and refer back to this list as necessary; it’s a handy guide when you need a quick definition.

31 Common Medical Terms Related To Back Pain

Before you dive into the list below, here’s one important definition that will help clarify the rest:

Spine: A series of stacked vertebrae or vertebral bodies, each containing a disc and two facet joints, connected by ligaments and muscles and mechanically involved in your every movement.

And now for the list.

1. Adjacent Segment Disease: The progression of spinal degeneration from the operative segment to an adjacent segment after fusion surgery, often due to high loads transferred by fusion hardware (rods and screws) to the spinal levels beside the fusion.

2. ALIF (Anterior Lumbar Interbody Fusion): A type of fusion procedure where the spine is accessed from the front, through the abdomen or belly.

3. Artificial Disc Replacement: Another term for spinal disc replacement.

4. Back Pain: Pain in the lower back usually caused by a combination of factors, including muscle strains and spasms, changes caused by degenerated discs, pain from facet joint arthritis, facet capsule pain, and even factors such as hip joint pain.

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5. Bulging Disc: A type of disc herniation where a weak annulus and disc bulge causes pressure and pain on the spinal cord or nerves.

6. Degenerative Disc Disease: A condition where the disc changes composition and height, often resulting in instability of a spinal segment, changes in posture, and sometimes back pain.

7. Disc Replacement(Or Disk Replacement): Replacement of the front part of the functional spinal unit between the vertebral bodies. Disc replacements are most commonly performed from an anterior approach and require intact facet joints without arthritis.

8. Failed Back Syndrome: A general term to describe recurrence of symptoms after spinal surgery, often requiring further surgery including extension of fusion constructs to adjacent levels.

9. Flat Back Syndrome: A condition where the spine has lost its natural lumbar lordosis (curve in the spine), often due to loss of disc height due to degenerative disc disease. This can also be a result of poor spinal fusion surgery. With a flat back, postural muscles work very hard to achieve balance, often requiring compensatory hip and knee flexion to maintain upright posture.

10. Foraminotomy: A type of decompression to relieve pressure and pain on pinched nerves where bone is removed to enlarge the neural foramen, the space where nerves branch off from the spinal cord.

11. Herniated Disc: A rupture of the annulus (the outer wall of a disc) between the vertebral bodies where disc material escapes and presses against the spinal cord and/or nerve roots causing irritation, inflammation, and/or pain.

12. Laminectomy: A type of decompression to relieve pain from pinched nerves where a portion of the lamina (the bony structure on both sides of each spinal vertebra) is removed.

13. Laser Spine Surgery: Uses heat generated from laser light to burn sensory nerves in the spine and relieve pain from certain conditions.

14. Leg Pain: Pain radiation down the buttocks, leg, or foot caused by pinched nerves at one or more spinal levels.

15. Lumbar Lordosis: The natural curvature of the lumbar spine below the rib cage, often lost as a result of aging (see Flat Back Syndrome) or spinal fusion.

16. Lumbar Stenosis (Or Spinal Stenosis): The narrowing of the space occupied by the spinal cord and/or nerves, often causing pressure and pain.

17. Microdisc(Or Microdiscectomy): A procedure for removing herniated disc material where the spine is accessed through a very small incision, often through a small tube.

18. Minimally Invasive Spinal Surgery: Surgery during which attempts are made to minimize the size of the skin incisions and muscle disruptions required to access the spine, using specialized retractors, optical aids, instruments, and/or specialized surgical skills.

19. PLIF (Posterior Lumbar Interbody Fusion): A type of fusion procedure where the spine is accessed from the back on both sides of the spinal cord.

20. Recurring Herniated Disc: Second, third, or more herniations occurring after discectomy, where new disc material causes symptoms, often requiring fusion.

21. Sagittal Balance: Proper alignment of the spine as viewed from the side, where the combination of correct curvature of the spine and other factors place the head over the feet to minimize muscle strains from posture.

22. Sciatica: Leg pain symptoms caused by irritation of the sciatic nerve (a nerve that branches from your lower back down each leg).

23. Spinal Fusion: The process of joining two or more vertebral bodies to stabilize a spinal segment due to degenerative laxity (looseness) and/or destabilization after the removal of bony and ligamentous material during surgery. Spinal fusions are commonly accomplished with screws, rods, spacers, and bone grafting materials.

24. Spinal Fusion Cage: A plastic or metal spacer between vertebral bodies, placed to help the bones heal. It often carries bone grafting material to stimulate growth.

25. Spinal Fusion Outcomes: A term to describe how well patients have responded to spinal fusion at set time intervals such as six weeks, three months, six months, or one year.

26. Spondilolysthesis: A condition where the upper vertebral body has slipped forward over the lower vertebral body when viewed from the side or sagittal plane. A grade 1 “spondy,” for example, represents a 25% slip; grade 4 is a complete slip where one vertebral body is almost in front of the other.

27. Spondylolysis: General term to describe degeneration, pain, and/or spinal arthritis.

28. Stem Cell Back Surgery: Studies are underway to help understand the role of stem cells in spinal fusion, disc regeneration, inflammation suppression, wound healing, and nerve regeneration.

29. TLIF (Transforaminal Lumbar Interbody Fusion): A type of fusion procedure similar to a PLIF where the spine is accessed from the back, but through the neural foramen (an opening between the vertebrae), slightly at an angle, and often performed on one side only.

30. Total Disc Replacement: A new type of disc replacement surgery during which the disc and diseased facet joints are replaced from a posterior approach (through the back).

31. XLIF (Extreme Lateral Lumbar Interbody Fusion): A type of fusion procedure where the spine is accessed from the side.

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Good luck!

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