Back Pain Glossary

Acute pain:

pain that starts suddenly and lasts a relatively short time, usually less than three months.

Aerobic exercise:

physical activity in which the energy needed is supplied by the oxygen breathed in. Aerobic exercise is required for sustained periods of hard work and vigorous athletic activity. Examples include swimming, cycling, and jogging.


a drug used to relieve pain. Examples include ibuprofen, ASA, acetaminophen, and narcotic pain relievers such as codeine.

Ankylosing spondylitis:

a type of arthritis that causes chronic inflammation of the spine. Over time, chronic spinal inflammation (spondylitis) can lead to a complete cementing together of the vertebrae, a process called ankylosis that causes a loss of mobility of the spine.


inflammation of the arachnoid membrane, the tissue that surrounds and protects the brain and spinal cord.


inflammation of a joint, usually accompanied by pain. There are many types of arthritis; three of the most common forms affecting the spine are osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and ankylosing spondylitis.


the first vertebra in the neck.


the second vertebra in the neck.

Bone density test:

a test that measures bone strength.

Bone Scan:

a diagnostic test that uses radioactive trackers injected into the blood stream followed by an x-ray.

Cervical Spine:

the first seven vertebrae of the spine; the part of the spine that is in the neck.


a procedure that is sometimes used to treat a herniated or bulging disc by injecting an enzyme called chymopapain into the disc. The enzyme may dissolve enough of the disc material to relieve the problem.

Chronic pain:

pain that continues for three months or longer.

Clinical examination:

the “hands on” type of examination that health care professionals conduct in their offices.


the last four (sometimes five) small vertebrae at the base of the spine; also known as the tailbone.

Conservative therapy:

the use of medication, applications of cold and heat, and a gradual return to normal activities to relieve pain.

CT scan (computed tomography scan):

a diagnostic test that uses x-rays to reveal tiny “slices” of the body that are then analyzed by a computer.

Degenerative disc disease:

a condition in which one or more discs wear out and don't cushion the vertebrae as well as they should.

Disc (intervertebral disc):

a broad, flat piece of flexible material that sits between the vertebrae and acts as a cushion to absorb the jolts and bumps the spine receives as the body moves.

Disc degeneration:

a natural part of the aging process that begins around the mid-20s.


The partial or complete removal of a disc from between vertebrae; sometimes called discotomy.


a diagnostic test in which a substance is injected into a disc to make a rupture visible on x-ray.

Dynamic posture: 

the position of the spine when the body is in motion.

EMG (electromyogram):

a test that evaluates nerve and muscle function.


the applied science of fitting a job to the human body and its normal workings in order to enhance efficiency and well-being.


the straightening of a body part from a bent position. It is the opposite of flexion.

Facet joint:

a joint that connects two vertebrae. Each vertebra has two bone extensions at the top that point upward and two at the bottom pointing downward. These bone extensions interlock with the bone extensions on the vertebrae above and below to form joints that allow the spine to move.

Facet joint syndrome:

 a swelling of the joints in the spine that leads to stiffness and pain.


the bending of a body part. It is the opposite of extension.


the permanent joining of two vertebrae.

Herniated disc:

the bulging or rupture of a disc that separates two vertebrae. This condition is most common in the lumbar region (lower back).

Kyphosis (Kyphotic curve):

backward curvature of the spine.


the removal of part of a vertebra.  


a device that emits intense heat and power at close range.

Laser surgery:

a surgical procedure that uses a laser to accomplish an objective, such as vaporizing a herniated disc.


a tough band of tissue that connects one bone to another.

Lordosis (Lordotic curve):

forward curvature of the spine.


a general term for a dull, aching pain in the lumbar region of the back.

Lumbar spine:

the five vertebrae in the lower back. The lumbar spine falls between the thoracic spine and the sacral spine.  


a technique in which a body part is moved by a trained health professional, such as moving a joint beyond its normal range of motion.

MRI (magnetic resonance imaging):

a diagnostic tool that uses a large magnet to produce images of tissues within the body. These scans are generally superior to images from conventional x-rays.

Muscle relaxant:

a medication that reduces spasm and tension in the muscles.


a diagnostic procedure in which a dye is injected into the spinal canal to make the spinal anatomy more visible when x-rayed.


a chronic disease involving the joints, especially the weight-bearing joints. It is characterized by destruction of the cartilage that cushions bone ends.


a condition in which the bones are fragile and fracture easily. When the fractures are in the spine, it can cause back pain.

Peripheral nerves:

nerves outside the brain and spinal cord.


the position of the body, particularly the way the spine and limbs are held.

Psychogenic pain:

pain that stems from a psychological cause (such as stress) rather than from a physical cause (such as an illness or injury). It is just as real as pain from a physical cause.

Rheumatoid arthritis:

an inflammatory disease that causes chronic inflammation of the joints and the tissue around the joints, as well as other organs in the body.

Sacral spine (Sacrum):

the five small vertebrae just below the lumbar spine.

Scalene muscles:

three muscles located deep in the neck.


a lateral (sideways) curvature of the spine.


objective evidence of an illness or disorder. Signs can be observed or measured (such as a rash or fever), unlike symptoms (such as pain or fatigue), which are subjective.

Spinal column:

the series of vertebrae and discs that extend from the skull to the tailbone; also called the spine or backbone.

Spinal cord:

the thick strand of nerve tissue that begins at the base of the brain and extends down through the spinal column. It is from the spinal cord that the spinal nerves branch off to the various parts of the body.

Spinal curves:

the series of forward (lordotic) and backward (kyphotic) curves that begin with the neck (cervical spine, lordotic curve), followed by the chest (thoracic spine, kyphotic curve), lower back (lumbar spine, lordotic curve), and hips area (sacral spine, kyphotic curve).

Spinal stenosis:

a narrowing of the space around the spinal cord that can result in pressing or pinching of a nerve.


inflammation of the vertebrae.


forward movement of a vertebra in relation to an adjacent vertebra.


degeneration (breaking down) of the vertebrae.


a stretching or tearing injury to a ligament.

Static posture:

the position of the spine when the body is stationary.


a stretching or tearing injury to a muscle or tendon.


subjective evidence of a disease or condition that is perceived by the patient (example: pain).


a tough band of tissue that connects muscle to bone.

Thoracic spine:

the 12 vertebrae of the upper back.


the act of drawing or pulling.

Trapezius muscle:

a large, triangular-shaped muscle covering the back of the neck and shoulders.


a technique that uses high-frequency sound waves to produce an image of internal body structures.


a bone in the spine.


plural of vertebra.


a technique that uses a high-energy electromagnetic wave to capture an image of internal body structures on photographic film.