How to Tell if your Back Pain is Muscular or Spinal - VITAL+ Pharmacy

Every year Australians spend over $1 billion on treatments for back pain, ranging from osteos to physios to chiropractors. But how do you know if you’re getting the right treatment?! How can you tell if your back pain is muscle strain or joint pain? Here’s how to tell the difference.

1 in 6 Australians suffer with back pain, but the underlying cause can often be hard to identify.

Whilst back pain can be extremely debilitating – not to mention frustrating – there are various treatment options available. In fact, Australians spend $1 billion a year on osteo, chiro, acupuncture and physio treatments for back pain. But how do you know if it’s muscle pain or disc related, or what treatment to opt for?

The first step to recovery is identifying what type of back issue you’re dealing with, so we asked our pharmacists what symptoms to look out for.

When it comes to back pain, this is how to tell the difference between muscle strain and joint pain.

What is back pain?

Back pain can differ from person to person, which is why it can be difficult to diagnose the exact root cause. One person may experience intense pain from a herniated disc, where another person suffering with the same condition may not have any symptoms at all. Muscle pain can also range from mild to extreme, so it’s really important to take note of your pain symptoms to establish exactly what’s causing it, and what the best treatment options are for you.

The spine is a complex part of the body, with various joints, muscles, nerves, discs and bones all working together in harmony. It’s made up of 24 small bones called vertebrae that are stacked on top of each other. Discs sit between each vertebra to act as cushions or shock absorbers to give your spine flexibility and movement.

Vertebrae are joined together by small joints called ‘facet’ joints. These joints enable you to move around and bend your back, while a mesh of ligaments and muscles hold the spine together. This gives you the structural support you need to move.

Because it’s made up of so many components, pain can therefore manifest itself in vastly different ways; it could be a dull ache, a burning sensation, a sharp electric jolt, numbness, or tightness. It can also flare up in several areas all over your spine – your neck, shoulders, upper, mid, or lower back, hips, glutes – it can even spread into the arms and legs if it’s disc-related.

What causes back pain?

Your back is your body’s support network. Without it, we can’t move around, sit down, walk, jog, jump, stand up or lie down. But with any activity, your back can be subjected to unnecessary force that can result in injury and pain. This can be anything from twisting, bending or sudden jolts, to poor posture when sitting hunched over your desk all day. Any part of your spine, therefore, can become injured and cause back pain.

The most common causes of back pain include:

  • Muscle strain – this usually occurs as a result of physical stress and overuse.
  • Herniated (or slipped) discs – there are discs between each of vertebrae of your spine. A herniated or slipped disc is when the inside (the nucleus) of the disc pushes through the outside (the annulus fibrosus) of the disc wall. The pain is generally caused by the disc irritating or compressing a nearby spinal nerve.
  • Facet joints – these are the joints connecting each of your vertebrae. Just like any other joint in your body, your facet joints’ job is to promote healthy movement and flexibility. The effects of ageing and/or traumatic injury can damage the facet joints, which is the leading cause of back pain known as facet joint syndrome.

What’s the difference between muscle pain and disc/joint pain?

Whist some people often mistake muscle pain with joint pain, there are noticeable differences between the two when you know what to look out for.

Muscle pain

Muscle pain is generally caused by an injury or sudden action. The pain tends to be more localised, and usually occurs following repeated movements or stretching, often after exercise. You’ll know if you strain a muscle, as the pain comes on instantly.

Muscle pain is inflammation that manifests itself as cramping or aches and pains, and you usually only experience the pain when you use your muscles. With rest, the pain often disappears. Depending on the severity of the strain, the pain may continue when resting. If the pain persists, you should make an appointment with your doctor.

Symptoms to look out for with muscle pain:

  • Pain with movement
  • Muscle tightness and stiffness
  • Muscle spasms
  • Dull/aching/sharp pain
  • Pain at rest
  • Disc/spinal pain

Spinal/joint/disc pain

Unlike muscle strain, pain in your spine is not usually a result of an injury. There could be an underlying issue such as arthritis or a slipped disc that’s causing your pain. Or it could simply be a result of ageing and wear and tear that restricts your movement and flexibility. Spinal pain can come from your vertebrae, facet joints, discs, or a combination of all three.

Typically, pain originating in your spine will feel different to muscle pain. You may experience a tingling, burning or electric sensation, or your pain may be constant. Spinal pain can often cause a shooting pain that runs down your leg or into your glutes, or you could experience an aching in your groin, or numbness caused by nerve compression in your back. This is an indication that you could have a spinal condition such as sciatica, spinal stenosis, a herniated disc or arthritis.

If you develop weakness in your legs or feet, seek medical attention immediately.

Symptoms to look out for with spinal/joint pain:

  • Pain at rest
  • Pain with movement
  • Stiffness (worse when you wake up in the morning) and loss of flexibility
  • Radiating pain
  • Dull/aching/grinding/sharp pain
  • Swelling and tenderness over the affected vertebrae
  • Electric pain
  • Weakness and fatigue

What are the best treatments for back pain?

If you exercise excessively, the best thing to do is to rest until the pain reduces. This is particularly good for muscle pain. You can also try heat and ice packs on the affected areas to reduce any swelling and inflammation.

To reduce inflammation and swelling try:


ICE Spray 150mL
 ICE Spray

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Deep Heat Relief

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Nurofen Quickzorb
Nurofen Quickzorb 24 Caplets

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Difflam Gel

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For pain relief, you can take a paracetamol like Panadol, Nurofen and Aspirin together with an anti-inflammatory like ibuprofen, or Voltaren (diclofenac). Diclofenac is not suitable for everyone, so consult your doctor before taking them, particularly if you're taking them with other medication.

Note: You can take paracetamol on an empty stomach, but non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines, such as ibuprofen and aspirin, should be taken with or after food. This helps to reduce irritation of the stomach lining, which can cause indigestion, heartburn pain and nausea.

If your back still isn’t better after a few days, make an appointment with your doctor and/or physiotherapist. They’ll give you a thorough examination to determine what kind of back pain you’re experiencing, and what your treatment options are. A physio will assess your symptoms and develop a treatment plan that involves stretching and strengthening your muscles.

For additional support, try using a support bandage on sensitive areas that are prone to injury.

If your pain is spinal, your doctor will need to run a series of diagnostic tests – such as X-rays, MRI scans or diagnostic injections – when trying to confirm the underlying cause of pain. Your treatment plan will depend on your personal diagnosis. You may be referred to a physiotherapist, chiropractor or osteotherapist for further treatment.

You can also try the following supplements to reduce any pain or swelling, and as a preventative measure to avoid injury.

BioCeuticals Ultra Muscleze Powder 360g
 BioCeuticals Ultra Muscleze Powder 360g

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Ethical Nutrients Megazorb Vitamin D 120 Tablets
 Ethical Nutrients Megazorb Bone Builder Vitamin D 120 Tablets

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Arborvitae Arthritis Joint Health Supplement 1L
 Arborvitae Arthritis Joint Health Supplement 1L

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Blackmores Flaxseed Oil 100 Capsules
 Blackmores Flaxseed Oil 100 Capsules

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Flaxseed vs. fish oil: which is better?

Loved our advice on back pain? We've got lots more health advice on our Health & Wellness Edit, guaranteed to give your body a well-deserved boost. Suffer with UTIs? Here are some helpful tips. Could you be making these common mistakes with pain killers?

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Arkansas Spinal

Arkansas Spinal

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Arkansas Spinal And Pain

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