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Your spine connects your skull to your pelvis and consists of 33 bones known as “vertebrae”, which make up your spine.1

These vertebrae are grouped into four different regions, referred to as the cervical, thoracic, lumbar and sacral regions.1

Each bone is stacked one on top of the other to form a column, and the vertebrae in the upper three sections of the spine have a kind of cushion – known as a disc – between them. You can think of these discs as being a bit like a doughnut, with a soft gel-like centre encased in a tougher, rough exterior. 2

Your spine protects your spinal cord, a bundle of nerves and support cells that act as the information pathway from your brain to your body.2


Types of Back Pain

Up to 80% of us may experience lower back pain during our lifetime. It is also estimated that about 1 in 5 people are currently experiencing lower back pain that has lasted for at least 3 months, and can therefore be described as chronic.3 It’s no wonder that this is the case, as there are so many things in daily life that have an effect on the back. For example, things such as weight gain and even footwear can affect your back. There are many different causes of back pain, and all people with chronic back pain should see their doctor.


Back pain is very common, but in many cases the exact cause is not clear. The causes of back pain can be mechanical, inflammatory, infection, kidney or gastrointestinal diseases, polymyalgia rheumatica, or very rarely, tumours.4,5 On this site, we will focus our discussions on mechanical back pain and inflammatory back pain. 

Most of the time, chronic lower back pain is mechanical. However, inflammatory back pain affects up to 3% of people.6,7 Both of these types of back pain can limit your normal daily activities, as well as reduce your quality of life by impacting your sleep, your ability to work and your personal life.

But because both types of pain (mechanical and inflammatory) can have similar symptoms, it’s tricky to know the difference on your own. This is why it’s important for you to see a doctor and be able to describe your pain to them. This information will help your doctor make a diagnosis and appropriately manage and treat your condition. 

Take our 5-question Symptom Checker to assess the likelihood that your back pain is inflammatory, and find out more about how back problems are diagnosed.


If you have had back pain for more than 3 months, check the symptoms of your back pain here. The results can help you and your doctor understand if your back pain could be inflammatory.

Arthritis New Zealand


  3. Airaksinen O, et al. Chapter 4. European guidelines for the management of chronic nonspecific low back pain. Eur Spine J. 2006;15(Suppl. 2):S192–S300.
  4. Riksman JS, et al. Delineating inflammatory and mechanical sub-types of low back pain: a pilot survey of fifty low back pain patients in a chiropractic setting. Chiropr Man Therap. 2011;19(1):5–14.
  5. Atlas SJ, Devo RA. Evaluating and managing acute low back pain in the primary care setting. J Gen Intern Med. 2001;16:120-31.
  6. Hamilton L, Macgregor A, Warmington V, et al. The prevalence of inflammatory back pain in a UK primary care population. Rheumatology (Oxford) 2014;53:161-4.
  7. Cohen SP, et al. Management of low back pain. BMJ. 2008;337: a2167.
  8. Khan MA. 2002. Ankylosing spondylitis – the facts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.