How To Beat Back Pain Fast: Understand The 3 Types

It's happened again. another back pain episode!

It happened again. You woke up this morning and can barely move. It’s tough to get out of bed let alone try and reach all the way down to put those shoes and socks on. Another back pain episode. We’re going to learn that there are really only three types of back pain. And understanding which kind you have is an important first step to overcoming it! Let’s dive straight in.

Low back pain (LBP) is the leading causes of disability worldwide. Now as a passionate individual with a company developed to help people stay as fit, healthy and athletic as possible well into their 40s, 50s, 60s (and beyond) it only makes sense that we want to address this issue.

The problem with back pain is the poor management right now. The management isn’t the topic of this article so we can look into the specifics next time but step one is figuring out which type of back pain you fall in to. Getting this right at the start can make the difference between fully recovering in 3 weeks (like 86% of people) or steadily falling into trap of feeling fragile, losing confidence and chronic back pain.

What are the 3 kinds of back pain?

LBP Category 1: Serious Medical Issue (<1% of cases)

  • Fractures
  • Cancers
  • Infections

These are the big things or “red flag” conditions that we need to rule out initially if there is any suspicion that this might be what’s going on. Towards the end of this article I’ll outline some specifics about when you should absolutely be seeking out medical attention ASAP.

LBP Category 2: Radicular Syndromes (5-10% of cases)

This is a fancy way of saying that your back pain is coming with some nerve issues as well. Perhaps you’ve got burning, lightning-like pain that is shooting all the way down your leg and into your foot. Having pain that spreads beyond your back doesn’t necessarily put you in this category, but as always if there’s any concerns that’s why it’s important to get assessed.

The most famous inclusion in this category is “Sciatica”. Unfortunately this has become a bit of an umbrella term and people are often misdiagnosed. People experiencing nerve involvement will experience things like; pins and needles, lack of sensation (numbness) or notice a weakness in their legs. The pain is their legs is surprisingly worse than their back pain. If these symptoms don’t extend below the knee (maybe they’re just in your upper leg or butt area) then it’s often not nerve-related and might be something we call “referred-pain”.

It’s important to identify if there’s nerve-involvement early on because these people might not respond to normal treatments and might take a little bit longer to recover as the nerves heal. It certainly doesn’t mean you can’t get better and recover, but it’s good to have realistic expectations from the start so you can manage your recovery process accordingly.

LBP Category 3: Non-Specific LBP (90-95% of cases)

The biggest chunk of back pain episodes fall into this category. This is essentially the “everything else that isn’t the first two” group. The phrase “non-specific low back pain” can be very off-putting for people. Perhaps you’ve even been told this by a clinician already? Let’s clear this up. It does not mean that your pain isn’t real and it doesn’t mean there isn’t a reason for it.

I would normally call these episodes a “backache” or “back strain/sprain” because I think that creates more relatable imagery. It’s not that something isn’t sore, it’s not that we haven’t irritated the tissues in there, it’s just that because there are so many things that can contribute to back pain it’s simply not possible to put our finger on one single tissue in there and proclaim it is exclusively responsible.

And the good news is, we don’t need to.

The only thing we NEED to do, is be able to correctly rule out the first two types of back pain.

After that, the treatment plan looks the same. Figure out what you can / can’t do, what would you like to be able to do, and help you self-manage the pain whilst progressively building back up your strength and mobility.

runner with back pain

Most Back Pain is nothing but an ankle sprain (sort of)...

Most people on this planet have sprained their ankle at some point or another. Whether it was on the playing field or you were walking your dog and misjudged a step. And this is the perfect analogy to use when talking about Category #3 back pain (90-95% of LBP episodes).

Cast your mind back to the last time your rolled your ankle. What happened? It was probably a shock, very painful, lots of swelling and it bruised up as well. When you roll your ankle what goes through your mind? “I hope I haven’t broken anything”… Nobody is thinking about the ligaments they’ve stretched and torn, the bone bruising, internal bleeding and bruising or the micro-tears the muscles have undergone.

We need to rule out the serious stuff. Just like Category #1 – The Red Flags. I worked with a football team for 3 years and with the national level volleyball program at the AIS. Do you know what the test to rule-out an ankle fracture is? Being able to take a few steps on your turned ankle. This is exactly what most people will do instinctively. We test it out, see what we can or can’t do to make sure it’s ok.

We then push forward with common sense.

If you can walk, you walk. You probably won’t walk as much as usual, because it’s a bit swollen and sore. But gradually over time you walk a little more as you can tolerate it. You know that it’s going to be a little sore for a few weeks, that’s the expectation. You keep doing what you can and work around it.

If you rolled your ankle and could put weight on it and still walk around, despite there being some swelling and bruising. Would you be rushing to book an appointment with a GP, get a referral and go and get an x-ray just to “have a look”…? Of course not! You wouldn’t care. Once you knew with certainty it wasn’t broken, you would get on with it. Crutches, some ice maybe, gentle massage and maybe some sports tape but you would get on with it.

Why does is feel different for back pain?

Until you’ve hurt your back, you won’t fully understand how painful and frustrating it can be. Because our spines are so central and involved in everything we do, trying to “work around” the pain is much harder than with a limb like an ankle. But the same principle applies. We’ve strained or sprained some tissues that are involved in every movement and position available to us. That’s why it can take a bit longer and be more concerning.

We rule out the really serious stuff, then do what we can. We find movements and positions that are less aggravating. We spend time doing these. We shift our focus to our overall health; nutrition, stress reduction and sleep. These elements can help us recover faster.

When to see a health professional ASAP!

Back pain is scary and it’s always a good idea to seek out professional advice if you have a lot of concerns or it keeps happening over and over again. Let’s have a quick look at some of the details that would be discussed between you and your health provider to figure out which category of back pain you’re in.

Most of these things can be ruled out by chatting about your health history and doing some simple physical assessments in-clinic. You do not always need a scan, nor should you be getting a scan if you have NONE of the following symptoms.

Important note: It’s possible to have one or some of the symptoms below whilst having no serious medical issues. That’s an important detail – They don’t always indicate serious problems, they just increase our suspicions and highlight the need to investigate.

A rapid-fire version of the things we (Health Pro’s) want to know about your back pain:

  • Have you been using corticosteroids for a long period of time (years)..? Sometimes this can increase the chance of osteoporosis, which might mean we need to rule out the possibility of a fracture.
  • Have you been in a big traumatic accident recently ie. a car crash? Again, obviously we may need to confirm via scans that there is no fractures or nerve damage that’s been done here.
  • We’ll look for any cuts, bruises, ask about recent surgeries or bouts of sickness. If this coincides with your back pain then we might need to consider the possibility of an infection.
  • We’ll ask about fevers, chills, unexplained or rapid weight loss, lack of energy and most importantly a previous history of cancer. These symptoms warrant immediate further investigation.
  • We’ll ask and test for symptoms like pins and needles or patches of numbness. These can be quite common with back pain, but if both limbs are affected, it’s getting progressively worse or you have a noticeable weakness then we definitely need to investigate. Serious things to look might be noticing your foot dragging whilst walking, tripping on things or not being able to grip and hold objects well.
  • If you have pins and needles or numbness around your saddle region (groin area) or you lose control of your bowel or bladder this can be a medical emergency and I urger you to seek medical care immediately.

Again, this list is not to scare you. It’s to help you understand the questioning you’ll get from your health provider regarding your back pain. The goal is to figure out which type of back pain you have (1, 2 or 3) and treat accordingly. Once the serious stuff and nerve involvement is ruled out, you should feel a sense of relief and feel reassured that this can be managed and will recover with time.

It’s just a case of figuring out how to self-manage and keep active whilst nature does its work.


If you’re wondering how this works, I’ve created a FREE BACK PAIN RECOVERY program that guides you through the whole process step-by-step. You can click HERE to check it out. If you’d like to read another blog post – check out our post about the 6 steps to back pain recovery HERE.

Learn Something? Join Our Newsletter For More