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What is the Difference between Back Pain, Cervicalgia, Dorsalgia, Low Back Pain, Lumbago, and Sciatica?

The different types of back pain are classified depending on where they are felt in the spine: cervicalgia in the neck, dorsalgia in the upper back, and low back pain in the lower back. In addition to this classification, a distinction is made between specific back pain, caused by a particular medical condition (for example, cancer, trauma, infection, neurological disorders, or rheumatic disorders), and non-specific back pain, which has no identifiable cause but a good prognosis. A physician will make the diagnosis.

What about other terms, which are not included in the above categories but are often mentioned, such as “I have sciatica”, “I have severe lumbago”, or “I have a herniated disc”? Read below for some definitions... 



This type of back pain is when the sciatic nerve root is irritated or compressed, otherwise known as pinched. The sciatic nerve is the largest and longest nerve in the human body, running down the back of each leg.
This nerve may be compressed either by a herniated disc, which is when part of an intervertebral disc protrudes into the spinal canal, or by inflammation in the facet joints, which are small joints allowing the spine to move forward and backward. 
A pinched sciatic nerve can have several serious consequences, including loss of superficial and/or deep sensation and loss of muscle strength. Sciatica typically only affects one side of the body. Pain is also felt in the lower back and radiates down the back of the leg and into the feet and toes. It is a sharp, shooting pain that can feel like an electric shock. This pain tends to get worse when moving, for example lifting heavy objects, or even coughing and sneezing. 
Treatment depends on the symptoms, and surgery may be recommended if loss of strength and sensation are experienced. However, if pain is the only symptom, pain relief medicine and/or anti-inflammatories alongside physical therapy will be prescribed. In such cases, sciatica usually gets better within a few months. 


Pseudo Sciatica

Pseudo sciatica or false sciatica is not as serious as sciatica and differs in several ways: 

  • It is localized pain in the lower back that continues into the buttock and down the leg but never radiates below the knee.
  • There is no loss of strength or sensation.

The prognosis is good and the painful symptoms gradually improve over time and with physical therapy. It is important to stay active if you have this medical condition. 


Low Back Pain

Low back pain is a general term that can cover different diagnoses. Non-specific low back pain is often used to describe back pain that lasts longer than three months and where there is no specific identifiable cause. If pain persists, psychological and social factors need to be taken into account. This pain may cause limited movement that can be serious, with those affected struggling to carry out their daily activities.
Although non-specific low back pain can be worrying, it is very common, and four out of five people will experience it at least once in their lives. It usually improves within a few weeks. “Lumbago” is a general term often used to describe an acute flare-up of low back pain. The exact cause of the pain is not clear; what we do know, however, is that the muscles contract involuntarily, resulting in a “locked back”.

Treatment mainly includes physical therapy and a gradual return to activity, with a full recovery taking several weeks. If low back pain lasts longer than three months, it is considered chronic and requires a more comprehensive treatment plan. 

The teams at La Tour’s physical therapy center, a fully accredited Swiss Olympic Medical Center, have developed a multidisciplinary rehabilitation plan called MyBack to treat chronic low back pain. Focused on physical activity and patient education, this plan is for anyone affected by this medical condition and offers a comprehensive and multidisciplinary approach via group sessions so that patients can better manage their pain on a daily basis.


Find out more about this plan

Remember that the specialists at Hôpital de La Tour's sports medicine center are always available if you need care for one of these medical conditions.

Make an appointment at Hôpital de La Tour